Seventh graders at Millburn Central School put away the play things in their gymnasium this month -- the climbing wall, Ping-Pong tables and strength ropes -- to create a public museum on something very serious: genocides.
Students spent nearly a month working in groups to fill the room with displays ranging from the Holocaust to the Nanking Massacre to Darfur. Students called the project "the biggest of the year."
"It was hard, but it was really fun to do it because you got to work with your friends to see their ideas, but it was also kind of sad to learn about all the deaths that happened at the time," said Angela Lee, 13. "It was shocking and sad; you wonder, 'What would it be like if I was really there?'"
Started five years ago by social studies teacher Dave Schroeder, the museum has become almost a rite of passage for students.
Schroeder said there were doubts as to whether it would be continued this year, but students created a petition showing their strong desire to stage the exhibit again.
"I remember I would always look forward to it because my sister is older than me and she would do it," said Olivia Jensen, 13.
The museum, which has been open since May 9, closed Wednesday. Students presented their displays to about 150 other students, parents and community members during that time.
Displays included dioramas, tri-fold posters, power point presentations, a life-size replica of Kristallnacht, a night of anti-Jewish attacks at the start of the Holocaust. There were also recorded "interviews," in which students pretended to interview survivors, and a tribute to World War II veterans.
The unit began with students learning about the Holocaust, and later explored other genocides. Two guest speakers talked about their relatives' experiences surviving the Holocaust and Armenian genocide and a guest speaker scheduled for Friday is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
"I think it's good for them to see faces, to have that human side of it -- not just the research, the academic part," Schroeder said.
Parent and Air Force Reserve Capt. Julie Richey is in the same military unit as Schroeder, said his experience has shaped his educational mission.
"Mr. Schroeder's interest in social studies is punctuated by his service with the U.S. Navy Reserve and his desire to spark student interest in American history and our worldwide peacekeeping role," Richey said.
Schroeder said he plans to continue the project, given the student response this year.
"I always tell the students ... I hope for the sake of their generation and the next generation that we don't have to add to this memorial," he said.
"Darfur is still going on currently. They get it when I say that."