An unnamed teacher at Albany High School in Albany, New York has been placed on an indefinite suspension after asking her students to write a persuasive essay explaining why Jews are evil, using evidence from Nazi propaganda students studied in history class. The exact prompt read: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!” Unnecessary exclamation point aside, this “edgy” assignment asked students to do the unthinkable — justify a genocide using German brainwashing propaganda of the 1940s.
As a high school English teacher, I have written prompts for and assigned more persuasive essays and speeches than I can count. While I am guilty both of using unnecessary exclamation points to try to convey my excitement for a topic to my students and trying to make prompts unexpected, challenging and something the students can get passionate about, I have always had the foresight to stop well before I ask students to take on the persona of a genocidal portion of the population. Perhaps this is because I am a decent human being, or an empathetic teacher, or maybe it’s just because I know that the purpose of persuasive assignments — or any assignment at all, for that matter — is to make students think rather than to denounce an entire religion or race of people.
It is clear to me that this teacher was trying to create an assignment that was incendiary and interesting, if only for its unexpectedness, and required students to incorporate history and persuasive propaganda as evidence for their persuasive claim. If this was the goal, the assignment met and exceeded expectations. However, the teacher clearly did not stop to think of how offensive and, frankly, downright painful this might be for some students to complete, whether they are of Jewish descent or not. There are also about a million other ways that an assignment can reach all of these goals without being offensive.
The teacher could have asked students to write a persuasive essay arguing that our perception of beauty has changed from 1950 until today using historical propaganda as evidence. Students could look at a selection of political cartoons and discuss the messages of these cartoons and persuade the audience whether or not they are effective. If Nazi Germany had to be the historical period in question, she could have asked students to detail why Nazi propaganda was so effective, and then persuade readers that it was, in fact, horrible to accuse Jews of the things they were accused of. Students could even liken this historical time period to any other in American history — slavery, Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Trail of Tears and any one of many other examples.
Considering these are just ideas that have come off the top of my head, I don’t think it would have been too difficult for this teacher to come up with something equally interesting, more educationally sound and not horribly offensive.
Luckily, the district’s superintendent, Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, agrees:
She did not say when the district would allow the teacher back in the classroom and suggested it may not happen before the end of the year. The district will also bring in sensitivity trainers from the Anti-Defamation League to work with teachers and students before the end of the school year.
At a news conference on Friday with members of the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation of New York, Vanden Wyngaard apologized to the community for the assignment and said diversity is valued deeply in the district. She said she was shocked at the insensitive lesson and the awful leap it asked students to make. “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.”
On the bright side of this issue, a huge congratulations needs to be given to the third of the students in that class who outright refused to complete the assignment. It’s heartening to know that, where there is oppression, students will stand up for what is right, even if it means sacrificing their grade to do so.
Photo Credit: ccarlstead