Rural Kansas Teacher Makes History Come Alive
Irena Sendler was merely a name lost to history until 1999 when Norman Conard, a history teacher at Uniondale High School in Kansas, and four of his students uncovered her story for their National History Day project. During World War II, Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, then in her 30s, saved the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto in boxes, suitcases, and coffins. She preserved papers with the children’s identities in jars that she buried in a friend’s garden before taking the children to convents and orphanages. Throughout her efforts, Sendler was captured and tortured more than once, but refused to reveal any information regarding the jars or her co-conspirators. Sendler’s heroism remained largely unknown until nine years ago, when Conard decided his predominantly white, Protestant students “needed to be exposed to the world.”
Conard encouraged four of his students to investigate Irena Sendler’s story from primary and secondary sources, and ultimately they turned this research into “Life in a Jar,” a play portraying Sendler’s life. The students were inspired, and since then, have presented over 250 performances around the state of Kansas, as well as all over North America, and in Europe. “At age 14 and starting high school, finding this story with such courage and valor gave me strength,” recalled Megan Felt, one of the play’s original writers. The students began to search for the final resting place of Irena, and when they discovered she was still alive and living in Warsaw, they visited her in Poland and corresponded closely with her until her death this past May. Felt explained, “Irena showed me the power of one person to touch and change people through simple acts of kindness.”
The lasting impact that Sendler’s life has had on the students is largely due to Conard’s unorthodox teaching method. “Project-based learning makes the subject come alive for the students. It brings a new element so that they can make attachments and better appreciate what they’re learning,” Conard told Education Update. “Life in a Jar” is performed in schools, and, in addition, teachers are provided with lesson guides that include clips from news programs, PowerPoint presentations, and questions to help educators conduct lessons on race, ethics, and respect. Conard hopes that “Life in a Jar” encourages educators to continue to seek untraditional teaching methods in order to engage students.
A role model for other teachers, Conard is a mentor for students as well. He travels around the world with the production and “is always motivating us to do our best and get our audience excited. He gives us the confidence to make us feel like we can make an impact,” said Felt. Jaime Walker, another member of the cast of “Life in a Jar” who has been with the group since 2005, noted how “relatable” Conard is. “He can talk to anyone of any background or any age. He is a great listener and never biased; he is your teacher, mentor, and friend all at once.”
Conard’s impact on his students has had nothing short of a ripple effect on the audiences that attend the performances. The community of Uniontown, with little diversity and no Jewish students in its school district, was inspired by the project and sponsored an Irena Sendler Day. Moreover, following a presentation in Los Angeles, Felt recalled a gentleman who approached her and identified himself has having been saved by Irena. “He didn’t even know her real name until seeing our performance that day. For sixty years he knew only of her code name, Jolanta.”
The journey of “Life in a Jar” is a poignant story of respect and heroism. It continues to gain national recognition, spreading the lessons of tolerance and benevolence to groups of all ages, religions, and nationalities. As Felt quoted Conard, “it is Protestant children from Kansas, who found a Catholic Polish woman, who saved Jewish children.”
For more information on upcoming performances and how you can contribute to Life in a Jar, visit irenasendler.org. #
Reni Shulman is an intern at Education Update.