New York Teacher Creates Worst Writing Assignment Ever: Learn About Nazi Germany By Explaining Why Jews Are Evil!
From time to time, you hear about fascinating, inventive teaching techniques that make the subject matter come alive for students. For instance, astute commenter Chet Kincaidrecently recalled a mass media class in college where "the professor came up with a network television role-playing game to help us understand how TV worked as a business" -- the class was divided into groups representing producers and network execs and advertisers, and the producers had to pitch show ideas to the networks, who would then try to attract advertisers. Immersive and creative!
Unfortunately, somebody forgot to mention to an English teacher in Albany, New York, that this sort of creative roleplaying exercise doesn't translate especially well to some topics, like, let's say, the Holocaust. Which is why 10th graders at Albany High School got an assignment last week to
research Nazi propaganda, then assume their teacher was a Nazi government official who had to be convinced of their loyalty. The assignment told students they "must argue that Jews are evil."
Not surprisingly, about a third of the students refused to do the assignment, because for fuck's sake, and parents complained to the school administration, who are now considering what actions to take regarding the teacher, who has not been identified. If only there had been an alert student teacher to nip that nonsense in the bud!
The Albany Times Union has the text of the actual assignment, in which the teacher tells students to
pretend that I am a member of the government in Nazi Germany, and you are being challenged 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... Please remember your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30's) may depend upon it!... 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!"
Seeing as how Yr Doktor Zoom has a PhD in rhetoric and composition, we can say with some authority that, on a superficial level, this is a "good" writing assignment in that it clearly defines the audience, the writers' role and purpose, and the limits of the writing task. It even makes clear that the assignment involves roleplaying and defines the pose to be adopted. There's just one teensy problem: It demands that students take a morally indefensible position and to use racist lies as the core of the argument. Other than that, Mr. Eichmann...
Albany School Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard apologized for the assignment, saying "I don't believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith" and adding that the assignment "should have been worded differently."
Um. The wording isn't the problem. The entire idea of asking a bunch of adolescents to recreate the editorial content of Der Stürmer is the problem, even if it's clearly framed as fictional. There certainly are creative ways that the topic can be addressed -- hey, how about films about the Milgram or the Stanford Prison experiments?* -- but Rule One of good teaching should probably be Don't Assign Students to Pretend They're Nazis (or slave owners, for that matter). You might think that would be obvious, maybe.
As Yr Wonkette is well aware, the only time role-playing as Nazis is acceptable is in comments by Limey Lizzie, not in classrooms.
* And no, replicating those in a high school class is probably not kosher either, bubelah.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.