NY education chief sees how Nazi essay could prompt critical thinking
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said she sees how an assignment asking students to argue in support of the Holocaust could prompt critical thinking.
A teacher in Oswego County CiTi / BOCES New Vision program earlier this year asked students to put themselves in a Nazi leaders’ shoes and argue for or against the “Final Solution” to exterminate Jewish people.
Elia responded to the assignment after she spoke this morning at a round-table at Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo. She gave her speech around the same time Syracuse.com published an article about students who were upset with the assignment.
Elia was not aware of the assignment given locally, but said the critical thinking that stems from this type of essay could be good for students.
“I think it’s certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze … which position a person is taking,” Elia said. “That idea of being able to identify the perspective an article has or a writer has is a very important skill.”
Elia, who taught social studies near Buffalo for several years, said she would judge the appropriateness of the assignment based on the age of the students in the class, the material and background information leading up to the assignment, and how the assignment was presented in the class.
“Those factors would influence the appropriateness or not,” she said. “The concept of having students identify a particular position is pretty critical, whether they can analyze a position, and then decide whether to agree or not.”
The assignment in this case was given to high school seniors in a “Principles of Literary Representation” class taught by Michael DeNobile.
The class was offered through a program that gives students the opportunity to take college-level courses three times a week and participate in internships.
Administrators of the program declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement that an alternative essay was offered after students brought forward concerns.
According to students Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April, who took issue with the assignment, the essay was given during a series of lessons on war.
Prior to the essay, the class watched the movie “Conspiracy” which recreates the Wannsee Conference, where high-level Nazis devised the “Final Solution.”
The Anti-Defamation League condemned the assignment after the students contacted the organization, which advocates for Jews.
ADL Education Director Beth Martinez said that no assignment should ever be given that even hints at there being two sides to the Holocaust.
Jordan and Archer said they hope the teacher will apologize, and they are calling on administrators to agree to never give the assignment again.