‘Nazi’ theme draws leave

  • April 13, 2013

The Albany school district has placed on leave a teacher whose persuasive writing assignment was for students to argue that Jews are evil in order to convince a Nazi official of their loyalty.

The teacher was not in class at Albany High School on Friday and Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the district will take some form of disciplinary action. She said it was too early to say exactly what that would be, but it could range from a letter of reprimand to termination. 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.”

Beth Tidd, associate education project director with the Anti-Defamation League, left, expresses her disapproval of a nazi assignment at Albany High School as the Albany School District holds a joint press conference with the United Jewish Federation at the Golub Center on Friday, April 12, 2013 in Guilderland, N.Y. (Lori Van Buren / Times Union)

Students in three sophomore English classes received the assignment earlier this week in preparation for reading Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s acclaimed memoir “Night,” said Emily Karandy, 16. She said a lot of her classmates in honors English were upset at the assignment and felt terrible while working on it. She said she eventually wrote the five paragraph essay because she didn’t want to hurt her grade.

“I was putting it off because I didn’t want to think about it and I didn’t want to say anything bad about Jewish people,” she said. “We thought it would make more sense if we were Jews arguing against Nazis.” Karandy said she felt “horrible” when she turned in her essay.

Karandy also said her teacher — whom the Times Union is not naming — liked to challenge the class and she had never heard any racially charged remarks from the teacher.

The Times Union first reported on the assignment on Friday. Shelly Shapiro, director of the Jewish Federation of New York, said she was satisfied with the district’s response because administrators are treating the mistake as a learning experience, for teachers and students.

“It’s not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide,” she said. “There are ways to do it. This way was not the proper pedagogical way to do it.”

As part of the 10th grade English persuasive writing assignment, the Albany High students were asked to pretend their teacher is a Nazi government official who must be convinced they believe Jews are the source of Germany’s problems: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

Vanden Wyngaard said a parent notified her of the assignment Wednesday night and she asked Albany High School Principal Cecily Wilson to speak with the teacher on Thursday morning.

One of the three classes given the assignment refused to complete it.

The assignment sparked an intense debate online Friday, with some commentators arguing that the assignment was so clearly misguided it amounted to educator malfeasance. Others argued that it offered a good lesson in debate by forcing students to think in a way with which they were uncomfortable.

District phones rang off the hook with angry callers from around the country as national media picked up the story and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings condemned the assignment on his weekly radio show. Many, including New York City Councilman David Greenfield, called for the resignation of the teacher, who was not named by the district.

“The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs,” Greenfield said in a statement. “Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom.”

As the controversy flared on Friday, Holocaust survivor Hedi McKinley of Altamont, who lost her parents to the Nazis in Austria, was speaking to students in the nearby Mayfield and Johnstown school districts. When she told her story to 50 students in Fulton County, she tried to convey that it was never acceptable to judge people by religion or skin color.

“I hope they walk away with seeing to it that (the Holocaust) won’t happen here, that they can’t let it happen here,” she said.