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Albany Teacher's Holocaust Assignment: The Limits of Devil's Advocacy

For the past couple of weeks my 10th grade students have been learning about the Holocaust in my class, by survivor accounts including Dr. Elie Wiesel's pivotal memoir, NIGHT. So, I was interested to hear that another teacher in Albany, NY was also teaching 10th graders about the Holocaust--albeit, using radically different methods than I would. The Albany students were asked to pretend that their teacher was a Nazi, and write a letter in which they demonstrated their "loyalty" to the Nazi party by using examples from Nazi propaganda to show that "Jews are the source of our problems."

Students were understandably upset, many of them refusing to do the assignment outright, and the superintendent of Albany schools has spent the week apologizing to Jewish community leaders. The teacher in question is now facing disciplinary action, which may involve being removed from the classroom, according to the NYTimes article. My feeling about this incident (as a 10th grade English instructor currently in the middle of teaching a Holocaust unit, and as a practicing Jew in my personal life) is that this teacher showed incredibly poor taste and, objectively, gave an egregiously stupid assignment. However, I think I "get" what this teacher was trying to do, despite my belief that there were infinite numbers of better ways to go about it.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS)--guidelines for what learning milestones students need to meet in certain grades--stress the importance of argumentative writing, and incorporation of information from nonfiction documents into essays; teachers are constantly encouraged in professional development workshops to "promote engagement" by having students write from a certain point-of-view, adding a creative element to otherwise repetitive rhetorical essays. The Albany teacher's assignment was, I believe, intended to do these things--not trying to promote anti-Semitism. When I was teaching Julius Caesar, I once gave an assignment wherein students had to pretend they were senators and argue for or against the assassination of the eponymous emperor, using examples from the writings of Suetonius and the play itself to explain Caesar's benefit or detriment to the Roman Republic. Was I advocating homicide? Regicide? Of course not. I was trying to give the kids an interesting assignment relating to their book, and following the CCSS. Back when I taught Animal Farm, I remember giving the kids group-work in which they had to create their own political parties, designed to oppose Ms. Garon's oppressive rule in the classroom--the "workers" had to use Orwellian propaganda techniques to push forward their agendas such as less homework, more movie time, no teacher rule, and a return of personal snacks to the classroom (which was never going to happen, due to school rules, though they sure tried.)

Furthermore, I do think there is a benefit to examining the propaganda utilized by the Nazis or other totalitarian regimes, as was presumably intended in the Albany teacher's assignment, in order to spur meaningful discussion amongst the kids. Many times, my own students have asked why and how German civilians were able to be persuaded by Hitler's rhetoric to join the Nazi party, and examining propaganda of the time, along with first-hand accounts, has been part of our inquiry.

Now, there are an infinite number of things this teacher did wrong, aside from (however unintentionally) promoting anti-Semitic thinking as a legitimate rhetorical strategy: For starters, the Holocaust is, I think, both too recent and too appallingly bloody an event to be treated in such a cavalier, insensitive way--it cannot be purely "academic." Moreover, a good assignment wouldn't have demanded that students take one side of any debate, no matter how interested the teacher may have been in promoting "devil's advocate"-style rhetorical thinking; in a well-designed performance task, students would be given choices of which viewpoints they wished to argue based on a set of documents.

I also think this teacher missed a valuable opportunity to analyze and discuss the means by which propaganda derives power. Rather than simply assigning the students to reiterate racist ideas in the context of an essay, this teacher could have had the students explore what fears Nazi propaganda played on: Nationalistic insecurity? Economic uncertainty? Fear of the "other"? General paranoia about conspiracies? This would have promoted critical thinking, historical study, and probably not offended the entire city of Albany.

Whether this teacher should be fired or not, I can't say; certainly, if this teacher is allowed to remain in class, his or her lessons should be overseen for a while by supervisors. But I think for the rest of us, this entire set of events can provide an opportunity to reflect on ways we might help our students grapple with complex and controversial ideas.

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