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The book’s still open on ‘think like a Nazi’ debacle

  • June 21, 2013

Scott Waldman, Times Union  

Updated 7:32 am, Friday, June 21, 2013

The Albany school district teacher who asked students to think like a Nazi and “argue that Jews are evil” for a persuasive writing assignment never returned to the school this academic year. The teacher was put on paid leave in April and the case is still under investigation, Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said.

The district promised some form of disciplinary action, but did not specify what it would be. Vanden Wyngaard has said it could range from a letter of reprimand to termination.

The district brought in sensitivity trainers from the Anti-Defamation League to work with teachers and students this month.

The assignment was given to students in high school English classes two months ago to prepare for a reading of Elie Wiesel‘s acclaimed memoir “Night.” It asked them to imagine they were a Nazi official and craft an argument about why Jews were the “source of our problems.”

The Times Union did not print the name of the teacher involved because the reaction to initial reports about the assignment was so severe and even vitriolic in a few cases. My reporting indicates the assignment was not created with malicious intent, but was clearly not thought through clearly enough.

All of the students with whom I spoke said the assignment was out of character for the teacher and insisted the teacher never gave any hint of anti-Semitic tendencies. The teacher was known to be someone who created off-the-wall assignments for students, to challenge their thinking. Students thought the assignment was poorly worded, not malicious.

In the court of public opinion, expressed on blogs and through social media, the verdict was sharply divided. Some wanted swift punishment.

One person commented: “The teacher should be fired and bought up on hate charges.”

Others defended the assignment, saying young people learn best when asked to think in a way that is completely outside their frame of reference.

Another commenter stated: “The assignment was clearly designed to reveal how anti-semitism and hatred can grow. This is a valuable lesson. The lesson applies equally to Armenians, Koreans, Gypsies and any other group that have faced persecution.”

It certainly touched a nerve. People, including a few Holocaust survivors, have written to me recently to find out what happened.

The case is not yet closed, apparently.