By Limor Shiponi
Update, April 15th 2013
For now, the teacher is placed on leave. If it’s a temporary step that will help everybody cool down and start thinking, that’s ok. If she is on her way out and by that people think ‘matter solved’ – it’s the wrong thought. I don’t think severe actions are the Jewish way on this matter – if you insist this is only hurting Jews. Trying to understand, observe, talk, debate, learn why this went so wrong, are much more part of our way. This can be a lesson for life for all involved. Sending the teacher home won’t benefit anyone or anything. It will more likely enhance bad feelings towards Jews.
There is a deeper issue being neglected by many – the voice of parents and students who know that teacher, who have studied with her, and are trying to call out asking others to gather their senses. Right now, if I were them, I’d feel my voice is being vigorously ignored, that a teacher I like and trust, who has done a mistake, is being “kidnapped” from me. That feels more like a dictatorship, or a mad (like in anger building itself up) crowd way of action. That would be a lesson in hopelessness and silencing. Remembering what this is all about – it’s the wrong lesson. Can’t you see it follows the teacher’s wrong assignment?
The Times Union of Albany was first to report that a 10th-grade English teacher at Albany High School, asked students to assume their teacher was a Nazi government official who had to be convinced on their loyalty. How exactly? you’ll find the assignment sheet in the above link, it’s a little blurry so I’ve retyped it to make sure we all understand what the students were requested to do for class, and how:
Q1 Post Assessment: Persuasive Writing
For the following assignment, you need to pretend that I am a member of the government in Nazi Germany, and you are being challenge 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 experiences 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 is Nazi Germany in the 30’s) 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 outlines to structure your essay appropriately, and turn in this sheet with your complete essay. This assignment will be due on WEDNESDAY, April 10.
Great persuasive writing, isn’t it? turns out a third of the students refused to complete the task. The English teacher gets 66.6 points. Now they’re looking into how to handle the case.
Here is the real problem
Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the assignment should have been worded differently. “I would apologize to our families,” she said (and she did). “I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith.”
She also said students were asked to make a rhetorical argument, drawing on previous lessons in crafting an opinion. That making more sophisticated arguments is part of the new curriculum as is bringing knowledge from history class into English writing.
Where Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard lacks in her understanding, is in connecting the entire issue to “our families of Jewish faith”. She can’t see how this can harm their families of non-Jewish faith. She just goes on rationalizing in a way too familiar to people persecuted by irrationals using rhetoric and pseudo-rhetoric arguments. She might want to read about how Anti-Semitism infiltrates people’s minds.
Men, women, handicapped, aged, sick, prisoners of war, forced laborers, camp inmates, critics, homosexuals, Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Poles, French, Ukrainians, and many others were murdered by the Nazis. Among them 1,000,000 were children. This number does not include civilian and military combat or war-deaths.
For some reason, the teacher chose the Jews. To tell you the truth – I don’t think she did it to hurt anyone and I sure don’t think she supports Nazi ideology. Maybe she did it because the students learned about the Holocaust in history class or because it was around Holocaust Memorial Day. Maybe she didn’t notice from where inside her the idea arrived. Maybe both or something else.
Nevertheless, third of the students refused to complete the task and that means something.
Teacher, you can’t play ‘let’s imagine’ with everything
You’ve sent your students on an impossibly cruel task. Neither them nor you, or anyone else who wasn’t there, can imagine or pretend to imagine what it was like living under the Third Reich. Germans don’t want to carry that thought which gives many of them terrible shivers, and you are sending your students there? Trying to remember your life may depend on a task is impossible to any of you, and why on earth should you even try – for a school essay? does that really help understand “here is Nazi Germany in the 30’s”?
Why should you place yourself in the role of a Nazi official? to justify “you do not have a choice in your position”? meaning – if you already understand how the Nazi propaganda machine worked – which had nothing to do with rhetoric – what is this exercise in persuasive writing really about and under what purpose? some of your students could feel by instinct this entire assignment was wrong from scratch. Putting ideologies aside – they would all fail to bring results because knowing how to do it properly (which you yourself fail do demonstrate – I’m happy to let you know) would take part of their soul away. They are not willing to let it go, so it seems; they were born in the USA and by that have no reason to give their consent, just a friendly reminder.
Then there is the claim – that Jews are evil and the source of our problems. Well, you didn’t have to go as far as the Third Reich for that. Just a small question – do you have an idea about how many Jews there are in the world and what they are keeping themselves busy with? go do your homework, and figure the answer out – for yourself.
Finally, you were asking your students to take what they’ve collected from Nazi propaganda and combine that knowledge (hmm…) with what they’ve learned in history class and through any experiences they have. What experiences exactly, may I ask? do you understand what you were asking for?
And no, I don’t think anyone needs to be fired. I think everyone needs to look very closely at all the subtleties of the event and remember it forever.
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