Some are obvious and others are done behind the scenes, out of the eyes of parents, students and administrators.
Very few of the choices that teachers make turn into news in social media or news stories written by reporters and journalists.
It is just that type of incident that I am writing about today. I preface my remarks by sharing that I have been both a teacher and an administrator in a school where there were lessons about propaganda.
There are many topics that require scaffolding of instruction and the building of the context for the specific topic to be addressed through a series of lessons in a unit of instruction. It’s been my experience, that potentially sensitive topics are not taught at the beginning of the year. It takes time to curate your audience, in this scenario, the students, to a place of trust and respect. It takes time to know their back stories and what they are bringing to their engagement with the subject matter.
So, when I read the article, Chicago 8th grader says she was made to draw pro-Nazi poster, by Louis Keene for The Forward, my personal and professional experiences came to play. Those were the lenses through which I read and re-read the article and found related resources online.
I’ve been in a similar situation as this parent, Scarlett Herrin. As the parent of the only Jewish student in the class, that feeling of being the only, the token, the outsider, and in some situations, being seen as the one to appease, can be a burden. That role can also be seen through the angle of being the local expert, the one to call, the go to person.
Based upon the comments of 8th grader, Gladys Shelby, her feelings as conveyed to the teacher, were ignored. However, the implication is that other students also made Gladys feel uncomfortable; she became the one to blame if this teacher got fired. On the other hand, at least two other students, non-Jews, also felt uncomfortable with the assignment.
Did the students misinterpret the assignment? Did the teacher display poor professional judgement and/or an insensitivity to a student by disregarding how this specific topic, Nazi propaganda, could impact a Jewish student? Did the teacher engage the students in activities to build background knowledge prior to this assignment? Do activities exist that do so?
I did some of my own searching and located a unit on the Echoes and Reflections website. This organization is a partnership of the ADL, the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem. Their Educator Resource Lesson Plans includes a set titled Antisemitism. It’s here that I found and read their approach for teachers towards instruction around propaganda.
I encourage you to look at this resource. I found it to be written in a methodical manner that would gradually increase the student’s knowledge and understanding of this topic. The authors included five key points in their introduction to this set of lessons. Among the considerations were the following:
… “It is imperative to contextualize stereotypical, antisemitic depictions in texts and images before introducing them to students, as well as to focus on the humanity of those targeted…. It is also important to create an environment in which students feel comfortable asking questions about the origins of specific stereotypes and why they continue to be widely believed. When discussing these issues with students, particularly if you have students who might be on the receiving end of the messages and impacts of such stereotypes, educators should be attuned to how these discussions may affect them.”
Based upon Keene’s report of the incident, it appears that these two preparation steps were not solidified in this classroom. I know first-hand about teaching lessons that incorporate the Holocaust. I’ve been both that teacher and an administrator in a school where the curriculum included units of study about the Holocaust. I’ve seen an interdisciplinary project blossom from the pages of the text into a teacher and student curated educational exhibit akin to a museum that community was invited to view and learn from.
While reading about this current incident, I found another one that occurred in 2017, also in the state of Illinois. This time it was in Woodland Middle School, and it also revolved around an assignment given to 8th graders. The headline reported in the Chicago Tribune was, Gurnee school district apologizes for ‘Hitler cartoon’ assignment.
“The intent of the student assignment was to help students understand the complex issues leading up to World War II, not to minimize the atrocities of Nazi Germany,” they (superintendent and school board president) said in the email. Kelly Masterson, a parent of a student who was given this assignment had a concern. Masterson said she thinks the assignment might highlight a concern she’s had about Woodland District 50 staff — those teachers are forgetting to see the student behind an assignment.
So where does that leave us, parents, educators, community members and students? Do we remove teaching about the Holocaust from the curriculum because it is a sensitive topic? Do we remove it because it is a heated topic? Do we provide workshops for parents and teachers regarding approaches to learning about this topic? By workshops I mean ones lead by experts in the field and not sharing a link for self-study.
Those questions are food for thought. Just as there were multiple people of different generations impacted by these two incidents, so too, will there be different opinions. Over the years, there have been changes, some would call them advancements, to the topics that have been included in various programs of study. I don’t recall learning about the Holocaust in high school courses back in the late 1970s in New Jersey. Since the days of Governor Jon Corzine, April has been known as Jewish Heritage Month in New Jersey. Now, in the 2020s, Holocaust education is required to be included in the curriculum in the state’s public schools.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which I am a member of has been an advocate of education and combating antisemitism. Hadassah’s position is to combat antisemitism through education and its impact can be seen in the passage of the Never Again Education Act which became law in May 2020. Hadassah identifies this topic as a critical subject matter. “Our power in combating antisemitism is through education,” according to a statement on the Hadassah website, Advocate & Take Action.
Given the incidents in these two schools, five years apart from one another, it is not enough to espouse the need for education. There must be active engagement in training educators. It is not enough to write a curriculum and distribute it without also providing the funding for training educators and conducting workshops for members of the educational community and the residents of the community.
According to Grassroots effort to make ‘Never Again’ resound in classrooms across America (jns.org), Sandra Hagee Parker, founding Chairwoman of Christians United or Israel, CUFI, states: “We hope this legislation better enables teachers around the country to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust and the dangers of anti-Semitism. We hope it will help teachers light a flame inside every heart that will motivate students to stand up against the wickedness of anti-Semitism and reject it wholeheartedly. We hope it inspires them to stand with Jewish friends and neighbors, and the Jewish people everywhere in the face of growing threats.”
Gladys, the 8th grader, attempted to stand up. Her mom spoke out as did Kelly Masterson. As a teacher and an educator, let’s find viable means and methods for educating the teachers about addressing the Holocaust in their classrooms. I prefer that approach to more news article showcasing teachers’ decisions, choices made with what I want to believe are the best intentions.