The Albany school district has placed on leave a High School teacher whose persuasive writing assignment was for students to argue that Jews are evil in order to convince a Nazi official of their loyalty, the Albany Times Union reported.
Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the district is planning to take some disciplinary action against the teacher, saying it could range from a letter of reprimand to termination. She asserted the district would not allow the teacher back in the classroom before the end of the year.
The district will also employ sensitivity trainers from the Anti-Defamation League to work with teachers and students before the end of the school year.
The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
The assignment read: “Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three 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!”
One of the three classes given the assignment refused to do it. Perhaps that had been the intent of the entire project, to test how far High School students would go to comply with an authority figure?
At a news conference on Friday with members of the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Federation of New York, Vanden Wyngaard apologized to the community for the assignment. She said she was shocked at the assignment. “You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle,” she said. “It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.”
Emily Karandy, 16, told the Times Union she was putting off the assignment, and felt “horrible” when she turned in her essay, “because I didn’t want to think about it and I didn’t want to say anything bad about Jewish people. We thought it would make more sense if we were Jews arguing against Nazis.” Karandy said.
The Times Union first reported on the assignment on Friday. Shelly Shapiro, director of the Jewish Federation of New York, said she was satisfied with the district’s response because administrators are treating the mistake as a learning experience, for teachers and students.
“It’s not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide,” she said. “There are ways to do it. This way was not the proper pedagogical way to do it.”
But Reform Rabbi Donald P. Cashman of the B’nai Sholom Congregation, who is the father of three Albany High graduates, empathized with the teacher. “Hypothetical situations are often effective teaching tools,” he told the NY Times, and debating positions one may not believe in can also be valuable.
“We know it’s important for kids to get out of their comfort zones,” Cashman said, noting that the assignment corresponded with Holocaust Remembrance Day.