What freedom do teachers have in assigning work?

An Albany, NY teacher should be ashamed for assigning an essay putting students in the shoes of Nazis.

Last week, an unnamed English teacher at Albany High School in New York was put on leave by the school district after giving out a rather unsettling prompt for a persuasive essay.

Danny Razzano | Daily Trojan

Danny Razzano | Daily Trojan

According to USA Today, the teacher asked her students to “argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

Students were then instructed to read and watch Nazi propaganda to provide evidence for their papers and convince their teacher that Jews were the source of Germany’s problems, according to the Times Union. In other words, they had to think like a Nazi and rationalize the horrific acts that were perpetuated during the Holocaust and the millions of deaths that resulted from Adolf Hitler’s reign.

Needless to say, students and parents were outraged by the offensive assignment and the issue was immediately brought to the attention of the New York school. Approximately one-third of the students refused to write the essay, which had been given to three different classes, Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said in a press conference.

The students who refused to do the assignment should be applauded for not going along with the insensitive project, even though the school claims that the teacher’s only intention was to challenge students to see the power of a persuasive argument. The importance of crafting persuasive rhetoric is a lesson that all schools need to teach, but forcing students to write from this specific point of view about one of the worst incidents in human history is not the way to go about it.

The amount of prompts the teacher could have chosen instead is infinite: The assignment could have been to “write a persuasive argument to your parents on why you should be allowed to stay up later than your current curfew” or “write an essay to the mayor on why you think the cement in front of the school should be repaved.”

Instead, the teacher chose one of the worst possible prompts and worded it in an incredibly insensitive way, making the class a member of one of the most vicious and hated regime in the past 200 years. In this case, these students were underlings — underlings that must prove themselves or face metaphorical prosecution in the form of a failed grade. This was a mockery of the pain and suffering of millions of people; it was an insult to the men, women and children who were raped, starved, shot or gassed to death during a madman’s reign.

Whether the teacher was attempting to influence students with his or her own possibly anti-Semitic sentiments or not, any teacher who is incapable of racial and political sensitivity should not be teaching the nation’s young minds.

If anything, they need to go back to school themselves and take a course on World War II and maybe even take a visit to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Perhaps then they’d be more conscientious of their students’ needs and sensibilities.

Melissa Mendes is a junior majoring in creative writing.


Bold teachers should be celebrated for pushing and challenging their students in a way studying facts alone cannot.

 Education is supposed to be provocative. Great teachers push students out of their comfort zones and force them to confront, question and justify their beliefs.

Danny Razzano | Daily Trojan

Danny Razzano | Daily Trojan

Forcing a 16-year-old to memorize the dates of the Holocaust and the number of people murdered solely serves to dehumanize and impersonalize the story — it becomes a statistic, rather than a tragedy. The actions taken by Adolf Hitler and the citizenry he commanded are so unfathomable that for many young students learning about Nazi Germany for the first time, it doesn’t seem real. Instead, it only exists as something that occurred long ago in a world far away, something that could never happen today.

Therefore, when students sit idly by in a history class, remembering statistics and facts, the most important lesson is brushed aside. There were people who put Hitler in power — people who, at the time, were often just average citizens. To argue otherwise is to trivialize the problem and fail to address the fundamental nature of what caused the Holocaust in the first place.

This is what people need to understand about the uproar surrounding the Albany teacher who assigned a controversial writing assignment. Though the actual assignment could have been presented better, it nevertheless had the chance to help students comprehend how and why a radical, malevolent leader can back a society into a corner and take advantage of it.

It’s critical that we do not try to soften history, no matter how difficult it is, in order to shield young people from the unpleasant truth. Doing so is not only disrespectful to the victims — but it also does a disservice to students and sets a disturbing precedent for our nation’s schools, one in which history is removed from the history books.

This teacher should not face personal or professional consequences for the assignment. Instead, the teacher should be applauded for attempting to teach his or her students something more than arbitrary dates and statistics, even if the attempt was ill-fated.

It’s no secret that education in the United States is failing. And as we dive further and further into the information age, knowledge of facts and dates becomes less critical. As this access to information becomes ubiquitous, critical thinking becomes the critical skill, a skill hindered by this specific district’s refusal to push boundaries and challenge kids.

Perhaps the teacher’s assignment was a bit of a miscalculation. But with America’s school system falling fast with no sign of recovery, should we really burn a teacher at the stake for trying something new?

Instead, administrators and faculty should work with them to improve the writing assignment so it has the same effect while still remaining sensitive to cultural issues. And regardless, fellow teachers should be encouraged to push students out of their comfort zone.

Though he or she might not have discovered the secret to turning our education system around, they did try something new. And that is admirable because if there’s one thing both sides can agree on, it’s that the status quo is broken.

Michael Windes is a sophomore majoring in business administration.

2 replies
  1. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    That assignment to think like a Nazi, write like a Nazi and justify hideous, beast-like activity in support for mass murder is not “creative.” It is rather horrific and shows terrible judgment. “Creative?” “Imaginative?” “Stimulating?” No. Just terrible judgment by an immature or thoughtless teacher.

    If you think about writing assignments, speaking assignments or similar educational tasks, you can come up with plenty of vile subjects about real life. Discuss them, yes. Research and write about them, sure. But requiring that the students assume and write monstrous positions as their own is another matter. It is not helpful in teaching students how to use their intelligence, nor what the values are an ethical society. And it is appalling that a teacher could be so witless and uncomprehending.

  2. BB
    BB says:

    Let’s say the teacher wanted the students to “argue that Old White men are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Republican Party!” That teacher would not only be honored by the educational establishment but would have most likely been offered a adjunct professorship at USC by Provost Garrett.

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