Insensitive, Hurtful Assignments

It’s Saturday and after a relaxing morning of sleeping in, I check my news feeds.

A New York Times headline puts me over the edge, undoing whatever good ten hours of sleep did for me: “Students Told to Take Viewpoints of Nazis.” An unidentified 10th-grade English teacher in New York at an Albany High School asked students to write a “persuasive essay” to argue why Jews are evil.

I discover that Scott Waldman of Albany’s Times Union broke the story, “School Apologizes for ‘Nazi’ writing assignment.”

“Students were asked to watch and read Nazi propaganda, then pretend their teacher was a Nazi government official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty,” Waldman writes. “In five paragraphs, they were required to prove that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems.

The Times Union has also posted an exact image of the assignment, though the poor image quality makes reading it quite difficult.  As best I can, I decipher the text below:

 In the following assignment, you need to pretend that I am a member of the government in Nazi Germany, and you are being challenged to convince me that you are loyal to the Nazis by writing an essay convincing me that Jews are evil and the source of our problems. After viewing the videos [if they work] and reading the packet of propaganda, combine that knowledge with what you’ve learned in history class and through any experience you have to complete this task.

Since this is a persuasive piece, you need to choose from the types of rhetorical arguments we covered in quarter 1, in writing your commentaries about religious freedom, freedom of religious expression, etc. Review in your notebooks the definitions for LOGOS, ETHOS, AND PATHOS. Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember your life [here in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s] may depend on it!

Your essay must be 5 paragraphs long, with an introduction, 3 body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion. You do not have a choice in your position—you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich! Use the following brief outline to structure your essay appropriately, and turn in this sheet with your completed essay. This assignment will be due on WEDNESDAY, April 10.

I read additional coverage from the Associated Press, “New York teacher who assigned Nazi letter put on leave,” and I quote a section from this story to update my Facebook status:

 I am absolutely appalled by an Albany, New York teacher, who had her “students practice the art of persuasive writing by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that ‘Jews are evil.'”  I’m all the more appalled that the district has not named said teacher, but has identified her as a “veteran.” I have one word to describe this incident: disgusting.

I think back to my time as a history student at Brandeis University, where I had the immense good fortune of studying under Prof. Antony Polonsky, the leading authority on East European Jewish history, and an eminent scholar on the Holocaust—as well as other acts of genocide.

Though I’m sure Polonsky feels similarity, I fear that he would be disappointed with my initial outburst. I am justified in my rage, but I am letting this emotion cloud my better judgment. Bruce Musgrave, my editor, tells me something similar when he returns a rough draft of this article. I need to clearly express why this assignment promotes antisemitism, and why it’s wholly unacceptable and offensive. I reach out to Polonsky for his take:

“There was a similar controversy in England when in one of the public examinations students were asked to explain why anti-semities hated Jews,” Polonsky writes to me in an e-mail exchange. “The problem is drawing a line between understanding ethnic and religious hatreds and justifying them. I think in this case the line was crossed.”

I always strive to find the best in people (another lesson from my grandmother, Joan), and I concede that in all likelihood, the Albany High School teacher had no malicious intent.

He or she had even planned for the class to read Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, whom I’ve had the honor of hearing speak on several occasions. All the same, as Polonsky points out, a line was crossed, and any well-intentioned meaning gets tossed aside—especially when a teacher forces students to justify the destruction of 6 million Jews.

I also worry that such an assignment stops just shy of promoting Holocaust denial—a difficult problem that still plagues America—by asking students to argue that “Jews are evil and the source of our problems.”

At Brandeis, I remember reading Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust. I dust off my worn copy and find a highlighted passage:

The attempt to deny the Holocaust enlists a basic strategy of distortion. Truth is mixed with absolute lies, confusing readers who are unfamiliar with the tactics of the deniers. Half-truths and story segments, which conveniently avoid critical information, leave the listener with a distorted impression of what really happened. The abundance of documents and testimonies that confirm the Holocaust are dismissed as contrived, coerced, or forgeries and falsehoods.

If students ended up doing this assignment, I imagine that many of them would find Web pages dedicated to this line of thinking, needed to inform any analysis that their teacher expects of them.

Even if the Albany High School teacher harbors no anti-semetic feelings, as I would like to believe she does not, I am equally upset by her ignorance. As a college junior, I remember attending an event at Boston University, where Wiesel teaches. I don’t remember Wiesel’s exact words, but I do recall his talking about ignorance and persistent anti-semitism.

I surf the Web and stumble upon a 2011 story by journalist Jill Garbi in the New Jersey Jewish Times, “Elie Wiesel warns about persistence of anti-Semitism.” I am reminded that Weisel delivered a similar message when I heard him speak, more than five years ago:

“We live in a democracy in America. Our voices can be heard,” he said. “Even if we cannot cure hatred universally, we can make people aware.”

I spent five years of my life studying Polish history, the Holocaust and other atrocities throughout the ages—often resulting in nightmares that would cause me to wake in a cold sweat.

I wholeheartedly support Wiesel’s stance, but for me, becoming truly aware of the nature of raw hatred took a huge emotional toll. In fact, it’s a main reason why I didn’t want to pursue a doctorate.

I wonder to what extent I should blame the Albany High School teacher, who, in all likelihood, lacked anything close to my privileged education.

Of course, this teacher is an adult, and “I didn’t know” is no excuse for wrongdoing. But I do worry how difficult it seems to effectively educate, or simply raise the awareness of certain individuals on sensitive topics.

Upon learning of this story, I first felt intense anger that this unknown Albany High School teacher is still unknown. But after dinner last night with Fred Truby, a fellow teacher and one of my closest friends, I concede a logical explanation for such well-guarded anonymity.

Last month, Florida Atlantic University Professor Deandre Poole made national headlines after he had students partake in a controversial assignment. I read Sun Sentinel reporter Scott Travis’s piece,  “FAU puts ‘stomp Jesus’ instructor on leave.”

“During a March 4 class on the Davie campus, Poole asked students to write Jesus on a sheet of paper, throw it on the floor and then step on it,” Travis writes. “It was part of a lesson on the impact of words included in the instructor’s guide of the class textbook, written by a professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.”

Travis also reports how Poole, “who is black, has had death threats and racially charged messages left on his voice mail and in his email.”

I hold immense disrespect for the Albany High School teacher. Even still, in light of this FAU incident, I would never want to harm this person or put him or her in harm’s way.

My learning about the Albany High School case brings to mind another recent classroom scandal.

In a Feb. 22 piece, “Homework mixing slavery and math for NYC 4th-graders stirs uproar,” Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Huskal writes about a fourth-grade teacher, Jane Youn, at New York City’s P.S. 59, who assigned her fourth-grade students controversial math problems. As Hartmann reports, one of the questions reads:

One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month?

I find this assignment just as insensitive, and in this case extremely age-inappropriate. When dealing with delicate material, teachers, even those who teach various disciplines, should strive to remain topical.The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAUP) supports my stance in its “Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.”

“Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject,” the AAUP document states.

A New York magazine reporter writes another interesting piece about this incident, “NYC Teachers Give Fourth-Graders Math Problems About Dead Slaves, Whippings,” but I’m far more concerned about a comment by one of the readers, ASHER279:

i honestly don’t[sic]  see what is wrong with the question. its common for different disciplines (math, history, english, science, ect [sic]) to share curriculum with each other to make for a more cohesive schooling.

how is being a 9 year old too young to learn about the atrocities and suffering slaves endured during the slave trade? this seems like a bullsh*t political correctness outrage over things that are important to learn.

Perhaps there is no accounting for such racial and religious insensitivity. In an April 1 Inside Higher Ed article, “I Was Doing My Job,” journalist Scott Jaschik writes how Poole considers himself religious: “For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It’s how I identify myself as a Christian.”

I want teachers to push the envelope, so to speak, and to engage students in worthwhile discussion. But at the same time, academic freedom is not a free ticket for race baiting. In trying to educate young people about delicate matters, some teachers cross the line. I’m not sure how to solve this problem, or even if it can be completely solved.

All the same, educators should promote understanding, not misunderstanding. On that score, these teachers failed.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply April 15, 2013

    Scott du Feu

    The assignment is outrageous, but then so are some of the things students are asked to read (even out loud) in class these days. There are obviously many, many things in the world that students should know about and hopefully understand, but there are things that don’t need to be graphically portrayed in the books and plays, etc that students read. I don’t think they need to read graphic descriptions of rape, etc, in any form. I don’t think they need to read explicit sex scenes, and yet it happens, in many schools. Now I am not calling for book banning or even book burning, but how about choosing other books, or plays. etc There is a plethora of great writing out there, and yet sometimes teachers seem to choose books/plays that are inappropriate because they like them or because they think they are well written. Of course, that opens up the question of, “What is appropriate?”, but I think we need to look back at what students ‘need’ to read, or perhaps ‘don’t need to read’ rather than choosing things that are not necessary to read. As far as choosing inappropriate assignments, I think some teachers are just stupid, and don’t really think things through, and when they are called on the carpet, they then have to try to find an excuse for what they did. Teachers, think about what you would want your son or daughter to do, and then think again as to whether you would want them to read it to their grandparents!

  • Reply April 15, 2013

    Lori Polachek

    Hi David,

    I believe that teaching in the purest sense is and should be an act of love.
    Taking on different perspectives is a healthy and important exercise for students. It can help to develop critical thinking and empathy.
    It is however a destructive exercise when under the guise of teaching perspectives, students are asked to spew hatred or to denigrate the inherent value and dignity of another human being or groups of human beings. Helping to nurture the intellectual and emotional development of students must not be confused with or compatible with the vilification of innocent men, women and children.
    Thanks for calling attention to this issue, and to the important distinction between teaching ( as an act of love and development) and abuse of power ( as an act of manipulation and vehicle for promoting hate)

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