The Jewish Journal reports.
Here’s my first story on this class where students were told to create posters and a campaign for the Nazis. My third blog post on this story.
The parent of a Jewish child in the class emails:
I spoke with Mrs. Cox over the phone last night.
After apologizing for the presentation, Mrs. Cox asked that I intercede in preventing the Jewish Journal from publishing an article. I informed her that I had no control over what a journalist wants to publish. She informed me that the Freshman Seminar class that she teaches on intolerance has frequently been the subject of budget cut talks and that despite this assignment she believes that it is an important topic to teach students. I told her that I agreed that it was an important topic to teach students and that other than this particular assignment it appeared from my observations of curriculum to be teaching about very crucial episodes of intolerance in recent history that were important learning lessons for students. I believe that it’s a tribute to the school that it would dedicate so much time to such an important topic. I explained that I certainly did not receive 3 weeks of teaching on the Holocaust and the events that led up to it.
Mrs. Cox reiterated that she apologized for the assignment and that the assignment would not be given in her class or any other Freshmen seminar classes. She said that she spoke with supervisor immediately after receiving my first later and they had intended on discussing the issue at a future meeting but after receiving the information about Echoes and Reflections that they decided to immediately stop using the assignment.
I told her that I was pleased that a decision was made to stop using the assignment but that serious thought should be put into how this assignment ever got to point that it was presented to a class and steps should be taken to ensure that a comparable assignment is not developed in the future. Mrs. Cox responded that she had previously taught her class without the use of role playing/simulations but students had asked how ordinary Germans had gone along with such hateful beliefs. She said that when she came back from maternity leave a colleague had suggested this approach. She said that her department is very collaborative and a decision was reached to use this particular role playing assignment. She said that it was used last year and that some but not all of the classes had used it this year. She said that she had some reservations about using the assignment but ultimately she takes responsibility for using. She continued to state that she was sorry that … had to experience going through the assignment and she in no way intended to offend anyone. She repeated that she cared deeply about the subject matter.
I pointed out to her that the role playing assignment is not just offensive to Jewish students but is harmful to the non Jewish students that participate by role playing as Nazi youth members and advocating racist beliefs. I reiterated what I written in my e-mail and told her that a greater explanation can be found in the body of Echoes and Reflections. I also stated that its important that the department understand that the harm is not just to Jewish students. She quickly said that they understood and then repeatedly apologized about how this effected… This interchange was repeated several times throughout the conversation, leaving me with the impression that she still did not fully comprehend why the assignment was inappropriate for Jewish students as well as non Jewish students. I told that I didn’t think that she fully understood the significance of the how inappropriate the assignment was but said that it appears that she was making a good first step in that direction.
I also pointed out that the entire nature of the subject matter and assignment was a potential learning opportunity for the teachers and students. In the class she had been teaching about how the leadership in Germany had abused it’s power and ordinary people did nothing to oppose it. I told her that this presentation was similar. Teachers had presented an offensive and inappropriate assignment and fellow teachers, students and parents just went along with it until one parent took a stand. An important question to ask is how did this happen? Why didn’t anyone else say anything?
Finally, she wanted me to know that if I had any further concerns that I should contact her and that she wanted me to know that lines of communication should always be open. I told her that appreciate that. She also said that she thinks that believes that there was some misunderstanding because of some initial miscommunication between us. I informed there was not a lack of communication and there was no miscommunication.
… came home yesterday and told me that she had a discussion with a few friends about the assignment. One of the friends participating in the conversation actually was in her Freshman Seminar class and had participated in the assignment. Despite …’s explanation which echoed my e-mails, none of her friends could see what was wrong with the assignment. They were persistent in their arguments that the assignment was good way of learning. Finally, … asked them what if the topic were intolerance in pre-civil rights era America and the assignment were to role play as the Klu Klux Klan. Her friends went silent.
What do we learn from this?
This is not a story about bad guys. If anything it’s about good people with good intentions who made bad decisions. It’s also about a barely noticed undercurrent of antisemitism. It’s not the aggressive antisemitism of Hitler but rather a passive intolerance towards Jews which allows hateful beliefs to continue unabated. If any one group of people at Santa Monica High School could have been expected to perceive the harmful nature of young students role playing as Nazi youths, it would be this department’s teachers. But they didn’t. In fact, the idea was their own and when it was brought to the attention of at least one of the teachers before the assignment was to be completed it was met with resistance. These are the people that are supposed to be teaching about intolerance and yet their perhaps unconscious biases undermined their ability to act as effective educators of impressionable students. But it’s not just that teachers didn’t see the offensive and harmful nature of this assignment, multiple classes of students this year and last year had no problem pretending to be Nazi youths railing against Jews in hateful speech. You would have to imagine that at least some of these students told their parents and yet no parent said anything. How does this happen?
Mom said to me this morning that it must have been hard to stand up in this case. I told her it wasn’t. It was actually quite easy. This class assignment was so obviously wrong. Everything I have been taught throughout my life makes the decision to do something about this an easy decision. What’s difficult is the knowledge that these are not bad people. This is not like work, I am not standing up against a murderer. There are good people that make bad decisions, sometimes that allows really bad people to do worse things. We are all there is that stands between that.
Here is email correspondence between the concerned parent and the teacher:
I am disappointed with the decision to proceed with the lesson plan in this manner.
I am at a loss to understand how student presentations where young teenagers actively advocate racist conduct helps them understand “how could German citizens sit back and let the holocaust happen?” It’s difficult to understand how an adult in a position of authority would encourage let alone not intervene when students make presentation where they advocate that “Jews are the lowest part of society.” Such a lesson plan shows an insensitivity to young jewish students who were forced to listen to their fellow students make blatantly offensive statements at the encouragement of an adult in a position of authority. My own daughter, of jewish heritage, had to sit through class while fellow students argued that they needed “to get rid of those filthy discussing jews.” Equally the lesson plan fails to take into consideration the complex thought processes of impressionable teenagers as they were encouraged to advocate racist beliefs by an adult (again) in a position of authority.
I can’t imagine any teacher assigning a similar presentation about pre-civil rights era segregation in the south where students would be required to advocate the beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan. Such an assignment would have been instantly recognized as offensive. The idea that black students would have participate or listen to such a presentation would be immediately recognized as utterly insensitive and demeaning. No explanation that the presentation attempted to enable students to understand how ‘US citizens could sit back and let segregation happen’ would be deemed acceptable. This assignment about Nazi Germany is no different.
Clearly the subject matter of the entire semester’s curriculum (except this particular lesson plan) and the length of class time specifically dedicated to the Holocaust indicates a truly commendable desire to thoughtfully address a tragic period of human history. While this particular lesson plan may have been drafted with the best intentions, it is not an effective manner of teaching students lessons about Nazi Germany. It’s misguided and offensive. This lesson plan should not be used in the future and an immediate remedial effort should be undertaken to correct for it.
In hopes of adequately addressing this issue, I think that this topic is one that should be discussed with the school principal.
The teacher responds:
I’m sorry you feel this way and all of the curriculum is addressed and conducted by our admin team. Renee Semik is a long time freshmen seminar teacher. This assignment was looking at German propaganda and I stated repeatedly that it had nothing to do with hatred of Jewish people. I have many Jewish students and I am very sensitive to their emotions and needs. All of the lesson plans come from the curriculum of Echos and reflections ran by the Yad Vashem and Shoah Foundation. A resource all freshmen seminar teacher use. To not look at Nazi propaganda is a disservice so students. We need to look at these issues in its entirety to understand and ultimately prevent it. In terms of slavery we address many of these issues in our race and membership unit. Looking at the eugenics movement. All of the issues we address are difficult to many students but that does not mean they do not need to be taught.
Tomorrow we are looking at testimony of germans who participated in the Holocaust. It is important to understand their side as well in order to address the issue that EVERYONE has a choice. And even though they were scared they could have prevented these atrocities. And that is the point of the lesson. We look at all sides because unfortunately this was not the end of atrocities in this present day society. We will also address the Rwanda genocide and the genocide in Darfur.
In no way do I promote Nazi ideology! I do quite the opposite. I show the flaws and the danger in going along with the masses. I believe you are very misinformed about the curriculum and motto of this course. I would be more than happy to meet with you about this but if you feel like taking it to admin then that is your decision. I am just sorry you are so misinformed.
The parent responds:
I am acutely aware of the need to study why German society radicalized and adopted a violent policy of hatred addressed towards Jews. I made that abundantly clear in my first e-mail.
As I stated before, clearly the subject matter of the entire semester’s curriculum (except this particular assignment) and the length of class time specifically dedicated to the Holocaust indicates a truly commendable desire to thoughtfully address a tragic period of human history.
The issue is this particular presentation which has students pretend to be nazi youth groups and then advocate their racist beliefs. I’ve asked you repeatedly how this particular presentation approach promotes your thesis of understanding “how could German citizens sit back and let the holocaust happen?” I would like a specific answer to that question, not a condescending platitude about the need to understand why Germans acted in a particular way. How is having young impressionable students pretend to be Nazi youth groups spouting racist beliefs as their own better than objectively teaching students about these groups as done in classrooms by academics since the Holocaust?
Secondly would you (and will you) employ this same type of assignment as I described if the subject involved a different racial group? Can we expect a similar presentation about pre-civil rights era segregation in the south where students would be required to advocate the beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan? I’m sure you appreciate that would be offensive and entirely inappropriate. Why is this different?
The teacher responds:
First I would like to start off with an apology. I tend to be very passionate about my job and became extremely defensive. I apologize for this.
In terms of the assignment in the past I just gave the stats of the organizations and every year I had students ask WHY would Germans join them. I would always answer with “it’s not WHAT you say it’s HOW you say it” and then go back to mob mentality and a film we watched called The Wave. But even after that they still asked why they just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. So a couple years ago my colleagues and I created this assignment. Where we look at perpetrators and propaganda. Now I clearly stated multiple times that they could NOT attack jews-if the orgs did this not many people would join. So their job was to create propaganda for the perpetrators. Then after we discussed the question of WHY people would join. And we discussed it had nothing to do with hatred of Jews but a number of factors including propaganda. I tied it into mob mentality, the milgrams experiment, and the wave. All assignments we did prior to this.
So what’s next-we will be looking at these orgs and their involvement in atrocities. Many students believe these perpetrators did not have a choice. But I explain to them that YES they did have a choice just like they had the choice to join the org. If anyone could have stopped the atrocities it would be them.
I hope this gives you a little more clarification. And I really do appreciate your concern and very much apologize if I seemed hostile. That was not my intention.
The parent responds:
I appreciate the response. I am not suggesting you are a racist, or that you do not care about this subject matter. There is quite obviously no way that you can be as deeply involved in the teaching of this subject without a genuine desire to positively impact students by conveying to them the sometimes tragic lessons of history.
My concern is only with this particular assignment in that it does not appear to actually address your stated goals, appears to do more harm than good and is offensive. Below I have attempted to explain why I think this.
I still have not received a response to my question. How does this particular presentation where students who pretend to be nazi youths, create hateful racist slogans and posters, and then advocate anti-sematic beliefs foster an understanding of “how could German citizens sit back and let the holocaust happen?” I’m asking functionally how does this work on the level of a teenage student? What exactly and how are students learning something from mimicking the abhorrent behavior of hate groups that the students are learning something? I don’t understand how this particular assignment achieves your stated goals. I’m inclined to believe that if don’t apply a generic response but really analyze it that you will agree.
My analysis of the assignment:
This presentation technique is ineffective because it trivializes the real consequences of such beliefs by divorcing the students from an immediate connection to the horrific consequences of such beliefs (ie the slaughter of 6 million Jews). Structurally, the type of speech employed by the various Nazi groups dehumanized the Jewish population so that German society as whole ceased to see Jews as actual people. This was literal and figurative in nature- “Jews are the rats responsible for the collapse of the German economy.” When populations cease to perceive another group as human; fail to see them as similar to themselves; fail to be able to sympathize or empathize with them, they are capable of acting out horrible acts against those minority groups.
Structurally, the class assignment replicated that process of dehumanization. My understanding is students were asked to apply creative thought to make racist posters and that students literally stated during their presentations that “Jews are rats,” and “our job is to get rid of those filthy disgusting Jews.” Apparently there was laughter when one of the students began speaking in German. Replication of such behavior recreates the dehumanizing process in the present without immediately associating a pejorative connotation to such conduct. By asking students to assume the position of Nazi groups, they are implicitly being asked to make a connection to these groups such that their identities in some capacity become interchangeable. The impressionable mind of a teenage student thinks how can I do this assignment well and moves next to how can I persuasively present the positions of these group, ie that Jews are bad rather than develop empathy for the victims of Holocaust or understand why German society made the decisions it did. The assignment thus dehumanizes the Jewish people rather than humanizes them.
On a subtle level it also gives tacit approval for such language and behavior because students are allowed to act out inappropriate conduct without consequences at the behest of an authority figure. This can have long term negative consequences on impressionable youths.
Additionally, it victimizes Jewish students who are subject to listening to fellow students express vile hateful speech describing them. Remember that this is a culture (my culture) which carries with it (whether articulated or not) an identity of having being subject to the massacre of millions of it’s people. To be forced to sit and listen to students pretending to be Nazi groups and advocating Nazi ideology is painful. Watching this occur at the instruction of a teacher fosters a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness which necessarily impacts their sense of identity.
My position through comparison:
You have not responded to my question as to whether you would or will employ this same type of assignment as I described if the subject involved a different racial group? If for example the presentation were about pre-civil rights era segregation in the south where students were required to advocate the beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan? I don’t ask this question in jest but rather as real attempt to understand your perspective on this assignment. If you have a visceral reaction to such an assignment, an innate understanding that such an assignment would be inappropriate and offensive, why is the same assignment with Jews different? I point this out because it seems patently obvious that both assignments no matter how well intentioned are offensive.
I would appreciate the opportunity to meeting to discuss the topic further in person. Having an additional member of the staff present is a good idea.
…Additionally, though your presentation was modeled on “Echoes and Reflections” their website “strongly caution[s]” against role playing or simulated activities because “[s]ome young people might over-identify with the events of the Holocaust, be excited by the power of the Nazis, or demonstrate a morbid fascination for the suffering of the victims.”
Does Echoes and Reflections include examples of simulation activities that I can use with my students?
No. Although empathetic activities such as simulations can be very effective techniques for interesting young people in history by highlighting human experience and responses to events in the past, we strongly caution teachers against their use when approaching a subject as sensitive and complex as the Holocaust. Some young people might over-identify with the events of the Holocaust, be excited by the power of the Nazis, or demonstrate a morbid fascination for the suffering of the victims. It may be useful, however, for students to take on the role of someone from a neutral country, responding to events: a journalist writing an article for a newspaper about the persecution of Jews; a concerned citizen writing to his or her political representative; or a campaigner trying to mobilize public opinion. Such activities can be good motivators and can also highlight a possible course of action that students can take about events that concern them in the world today.
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