Albany school officials are planning to retrain school staff on religious sensitivity and hold workshops promoting diversity in response to an English assignment that asked students to write a persuasive essay that “Jews are evil.”
The teacher of the 10th-grade English class is being pulled from the classroom pending disciplinary action, according to Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard.
District officials announced the actions at a news conference Friday afternoon at the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York on Washington Avenue.
Vanden Wyngaard said she was shocked and horrified when a parent showed her the essay assignment, which asked students to pretend that the teacher was a Nazi and “use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”
“It’s an ill-conceived concept,” she said. “This is intolerable and we will not tolerate lessons designed in this way.”
Vanden Wyngaard said she could not comment further about the teacher because it is a personnel matter. Potential discipline could range from a letter in the employee’s file to termination.
She said she wants a diversity and tolerance section to be included in the K-12 curriculum. The schools will hold diversity workshops in the classroom before the end of the year.
Vanden Wyngaard said that the district has students and families from a multitude of backgrounds and faiths. As a former diversity trainer, she has helped students and staff in many communities work on through their differences of race, ethnicity and religious background.
“We value our diversity very deeply. We celebrate that diversity. Our staff and students work actively against prejudice and intolerance in all of its forms, through initiatives such as the National Coalition Building Institute and Dignity for All Students programs,” she said.
The district is working with the Anti-Defamation League, which will bring its program to the schools.
“Our full resources are at their disposal so the school can effectively address the unfortunate incident and transform it into a meaningful lesson,” said Beth Tidd, associate education project director of the A World of Difference Institute of the Anti-Defamation League.
Shelly Z. Shapiro, director of the Holocaust Survivors & Friends Education Center, said she is pleased with the district’s response to the incident.
The center was founded 28 years ago. Since that time, it has been involved in teacher training and sends speakers to school districts around the area.
“Our students do learn how prejudice leads to genocide,” she said.
One of the center’s exhibits is on Carl Rosner, an immigrant from Germany who survived the Holocaust. He and his brother were in a concentration camp in Buchenwald. The Nazis were destroying evidence in the camp before it was liberated by U.S. troops. He and his brother hid in the sewers. After the war, Rosner was reunited with his family in Sweden.
Other Jewish leaders reacted to news about the essay assignment. Rabbi Matt Cutler of Congregation Gates of Heaven in Niskayuna said defending Nazis and the Holocaust would be like uttering the N word against an African-American. It is especially upsetting since Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Still, he doesn’t believe there was malice on the teacher’s part.
“It was supposed to be a challenging and difficult assignment, but it was not done in the best of taste,” he said. “It’s too raw. Even though it’s 50 or 60 years beyond, it’s still a very painful part of our history, of world history.”
Anti-Semitism still exists in society, Cutler said. “Fear of this is a constant part of our existence.”