"Many of my students have unstable home lives, some of them living in cars or motels, are gang-affiliated and have parole officers," Mazzei said, adding that learning about the Holocaust might be the last thing on their minds.
Getting their attention to teach any subject can be difficult, but last year, Mazzei found a way to integrate the subject into the lesson plan for her ninth-grade English class with the help of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) annual Teacher-Training Workshop on the Holocaust.
"Some of my students have never even heard of the Holocaust and think the only people who immigrate to this country are Latinos," said Mazzei, a Jewish educator who has taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for six years.
Now in its 25th year, "The Relevance of Teaching the Holocaust in the 21st Century" began this week with a four-hour session to help provide context for the Holocaust to educators. The ADL's seminar series regularly draws dozens of public, private and religious school teachers, who learn the historical background of the Holocaust as well as practical ways to introduce their students to this material.
In the remaining four Thursday night sessions, featured speakers and Shoah survivors will use examples from the Holocaust to teach morality and democracy, as well as discuss methods of framing Darfur, Rwanda and other contemporary genocides. Workshop participants will also spend one night exploring exhibits at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, which co-sponsors the series along with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the state's California Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance at Cal State Chico.
The programming is intended to help teachers like Mazzei explain the Holocaust and modern genocides to a largely non-Jewish student population. In exchange, educators earn professional development credits to help them move into a higher salary range.
Speakers and administrators within the program strive to keep the workshops current, said Samuel Goetz, ADL chair of the Holocaust Education Committee and a teen survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp. He said that the hardest part is keeping something that happened more than 60 years ago relevant to today.
"The students must understand it in terms of their own life," Goetz said. "We must address the difficulties that the mothers and children had, performing slave labor.... You have to try and explain that to them."
Program participants include instructors who teach English, physical education and art, as well as librarians, religious school teachers and administrators.
"Teachers are not necessarily informed about the history of World War II," Goetz said, adding that in order for younger generations to learn about the Holocaust, their teachers must have some understanding of it.
Prior to the 1980s, the ADL focused much of its Holocaust education efforts on youth, rather than teachers, Goetz said, but the organization shifted its attention to teachers once Los Angeles Unified adopted the salary point system.
Qualifying LAUSD teachers and librarians can earn one unit of multicultural credit for completing the five-week program, and the Bureau of Jewish Education also provides 1.5 units of in-service credit to its qualifying instructors. Educators can also earn university extension units from California State University for an additional expense.
Attendees pay $65 or $75 to register for the course, which covers all material costs and a kosher dinner for each session.
"We understand that teachers are tired, and we try to make it as pleasurable for them as possible," said Ronald Frydman, a retired middle school principal who will co-teach a session on Feb. 14 about using California standards to address democracy through the Holocaust.
A grant from Cal State Chico also allows workshop attendees to take up to $20 in books and supplies for their classrooms or libraries.
Mazzei, the English teacher from West Adams, said she was intrigued by the large spread of books and pamphlets displayed on a conference room table during training at the ADL offices in West Los Angeles last year.
Out of the many literary resources, including "Night" by Elie Wiesel, Mazzei picked out Eva Buntings's picture book, "Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust." She said the choice of a title used in elementary schools startled some of her peers, but experiences with her 13- and 14-year-old students has taught her that they barely understand what it means to be Jewish, let alone something like the Shoah.
Not all of her efforts to educate her students about the Holocaust have worked out. After planning a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, Mazzei was profoundly disappointed to find that West Adams could not arrange transportation.
"It's been very frustrating," she said.
Despite a bumpy journey, Mazzei said she is making strides and feels enriched on many levels by the workshops, which she hopes to attend again in the future.
"The Holocaust seems so long ago to them," she said. "They were shocked to find that there is a genocide happening right now in Darfur."
"The Relevance of Teaching the Holocaust in the 21st Century" is taught over five consecutive Thursday evenings, 4:15-8:30 p.m., Jan. 31-Feb. 28. For more information about the program, call (310) 446-8000, ext. 231.