Photo Credit: Lori Van Buren / Times Union
At Friday's press conference, from left: Beth Tidd, associate education project director with the Anti-Defamation League, City School District of Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, Alexandra Streznewski, president of the board of education for the City School District of Albany, and Shelly Shapiro, director of Holocaust Survivors and Friend Education Center and director of community relations at The Golub Center.

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.

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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.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. It is simply amazing that some of these teachers and professors in college, give students assignments without thinking. How can this teacher ask students to do an assignment like this when it was one of the darkest and saddest incidents in the world. The case also where the professor at FAU in Florida who had students write the name Jesus on a piece of paper then put it on the floor and stomp on it. What type of lesson is being taught to these students. It is bad enough that there are people living in the United States who deny the holocaust to this day.

  2. Rabbi Cashman is right. It should go without saying that actual prejudice is unacceptable, but that is clearly not what happened. This assignment is about understanding the power of propaganda and coercion, and the capacity to make the evil and irrational sound rational and right. Evil is insidious – it pretends to be good, it progresses incrementally. If we refuse to discuss how the Holocaust happened, and act like it was an aberration, we leave ourselves vulnerable to participating in genocide ourselves. I agree that this is too sophisticated for young children, but this was in a high school, in conjunction with History/Social Studies lessons on WWII. Not everyone goes to college. If they don't learn these important civic lessons now, they not learn them until it is too late. Why do you think more of our soldiers are dying from suicide than injuries? Please give this issue more thought, read the rubric for yourselves, and contact the school district in support of the teacher. S/he did nothing wrong.

  3. So, when do we get to teach kids about how governments use propaganda to incite the public to kill? About how scapegoating works to divert attention from the real causes of societal problems? Not everyone goes to college. The military and the politicians sure aren't going to teach them to think critically. And please don't try to say that the Holocaust was different, like it is a holy event, untouchable. No. It is part of the history of the world, very important to discuss. It was a horrible, extreme genocide, but there have been other genocides, and regular old war is plenty horrible. If we can't talk about how history happened, we are doomed to repeat it.

  4. Rabbi Cashman empathized with the teacher? ANOTHER kapo. He needs to be terminated from his position too. I am proud of the students who refused to do this. The official statement from the school district that said the teacher had no malicious intent…Do you think we are stupid? So, she had decent intent? The correct assignment should have been: Explain why the Nazis are evil.

  5. I have taught these same concepts without asking students to create the propaganda. I used primary sources, actual copies of Nazi propaganda, and showed how it was used to influence the masses. There is significant pedagogic support that students of that age cannot recreate the emotions of the Shoah by acting as if it was happening now and to them. Our historical and personal perspectives are not the same. I see what the intent of the assignment was, but the teacher really should have consulted subject matter and pedagogic models that abound in great quantity and are very good, such as materials from Yad VaShem and the USA Holocaust Museum.

  6. IF U WANNA TEACH HISTORY AS A MEANS OF NOT REPEATING IT, THEN TEACH THE TRUTH. NOT SOME FANTASY SUCH AS THE JEWS WERE RESPONSIBLE BECAUSE THEY WERE EVIL. SEEMS LIKE THIS SONG AND DANCE WERE USED IN THE HOLY LAND DURING THE CRUSADES AND AGAIN IN SPAIN DURING THE INQUISITION AND SUBSEQUENT DISPERSION THRU EUROPE AND RUSSIA. KNOWLEDGE OF HISTORY DIDN'T HELP THEN AND WON'T HELP NOW. AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS ARE CERTAINLY OLD ENOUGH TO DESCERN THE DIFFRENCE BETWEEN GOOD AND BAD! IT'S CALLED EVIL, AND IT IS ALIVE AND WELL IN OUR WORLD. SATAN HATES THE JEWS AND WILL PERSECUTE THEM AT EVERY CHANCE. BUT ONE DAY, JESUS WILL RETURN AND IT'LL BE A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME!

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