Uproar in Albany Over Teacher Assigning Nazi Essay

ALBANY -

A high-school English teacher who had students write an essay that would convince people to agree with the Jew-hating Nazis has been placed on leave.

The 10th-grade teacher at Albany High School caused a storm of criticism after having students practice the art of persuasive writing last Monday by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that “Jews are evil.”

For the assignment, the teacher, who was not named but was described as a veteran, asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then write a letter “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems … and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

“Review in your notebooks the definitions for logos, ethos, and pathos,” the assignment said. “Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember, your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30s) may depend on it!”

The teacher did not come into class Friday, and District Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard held a news conference to apologize for the assignment.

Wyngaard said she didn’t think the assignment, whose purpose was to have students make an argument based on limited information, was malicious, but “it displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate.”

As the national media picked up on the story, condemnations poured in. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings condemned the assignment on his weekly radio show, and several of New York City’s mayoral candidates also weighed in.

“The district superintendent acted properly by putting the Albany high-school teacher on leave,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Assigning students the task of pretending to be Nazis was twisted and offensive, and it denigrated the pain of millions of people. It crossed a line.”

Councilman David Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) insisted that the teacher be fired “for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs.”

“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,” Greenfield said in a statement.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a leading Holocaust scholar and historian, told Hamodia that much depended on what the teacher’s intentions were.

“First of all, the school should find out what the teacher intended. If the teacher intended to propagandize of behalf of Nazis, then I don’t want such a teacher in the classroom. If the teacher intended to get the students to understand the nature of that hatred that was directed at the Jews, then one says okay, but it was a very incautious exercise.”

But he said that even if the latter proves to be true the  teacher must be informed by the school that a serious misjudgment was made.

“A misjudgment made in good faith is still a misjudgment,” Berenbaum said.

The writing assignment was done before a planned class reading of the memoir Night by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Wyngaard spoke in a room full of books on the Holocaust and was flanked by school board officials and representatives of Jewish organizations. Speakers said the Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity programs at the school for staff and students.

Many of the students were dismayed by the assignment. Some refused to write the essay, while others did so in order not to jeopardize their grades.

“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,” Emily Karandy, 16, told the Albany Times-Union. “We thought it would make more sense if we were Jews arguing against Nazis.”

Karandy said she felt “horrible” when she turned in her five-paragraph essay.

Wyngaard said the school district will take some form of disciplinary action, ranging from a letter of reprimand to termination.