Teachers should teach critical thinking, right?
We all are born into a specific time and place and set of assumptions, right?
Using your imagination to pretend to be someone else is exciting, engaging, and causes a student to grow, right?
There’s more than one side to every story, right?
So it’s actively smart, creative teaching to have your class of high school seniors imagine themselves as Nazis at the Wannsee Conference — that’s the 1942 gathering in suburban Berlin that came up with the Final Solution — take either side of the question on the debate over whether Jews should be exterminated outright, or whether they should take the more sensitive approach, using ghettos, work camps, and sterilization to deal with the distasteful problem.
No, it’s not good teaching. It’s morally deadening bad teaching, two high-school students in Oswego, N.Y., decided in 2017, when their teacher gave their class that assignment. They were in a class of 75 students, and the project had been assigned for four years, drawing no complaints, before it was their turn.
The two students — who, by the way, were not Jewish; it seems that no one in their class was — tried to talk to their teacher about their discomfort, but he was unsympathetic. So, eventually, was New York State’s commissioner of education, at least at first. But then the Anti-Defamation League took on the cause, and the media picked up the story, and eventually the commission backed down, the teacher backed off, and the project was pulled.
Soon after the story unfolded, Liza Wiemer, a Milwaukee-based writer with a background in education who had written nonfiction and novels for both adults and teenagers, was in Oswego, on her way to Syracuse, for a book reading when she happened into a bookstore called River’s End. She’d just read a story about the assignment that included photos of the two students who’d fought against it, and she was astonished to find one of them in the bookstore. “You could call that Divine Providence, or you could call it a series of remarkable events,” Ms. Wiemer said. Either way, it was inspirational.
Feeling compelled to write a book about the incident, Ms. Wiemer researched the Holocaust, as well as the more recent national and local history, sociology, and psychology that must be incorporated into the narrative. That book, “The Assignment,” shows what happened in the class, and after it.
The book is fiction; Ms. Wiemer made the kind of changes that make it easier for a reader to be enveloped by the story. In real life, the class had 75 students; in “The Assignment,” there are 17, so that Ms. Wiemer can examine each one more thoroughly. The heroes of “The Assignment” are not exactly the heroes of 2017 Oswego; the real teens’ courage, passion, and persistence are in the book, but their specific backstories do not belong there and so are not included, Ms. Wiemer said.
Ms. Wiemer will be in north Jersey next week to talk about the book; the details of her trip show the wide-ranging appeal of “The Assignment.” She will speak at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the Roosevelt Middle School and the Liberty Middle School, both in West Orange, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. In other words, she’ll be at public and day schools, at middle and high schools, at Conservative, Orthodox, and secular schools.
One of the reasons that her novel — technically it’s a YA book, but it appeals to adults as well, as its diverse readership shows — is so widely read now is because the teaching technique it describes, and against which it argues, is popular. And it is harmful.
“My novel works on many levels, but one is to enlighten educators and prevent assignments like the one in the book from happening in the first place,” Ms. Wiemer said.
“The book is being used as part of the curriculum that educates about the Holocaust, but also teaches that antisemitism and hatred and bigotry and injustice connect the Holocaust and World War II to antisemitism, bigotry, and injustice in society today.
“This book also empowers our youth, and all human beings, to be allies and upstanders against any form of injustice.”
The teaching method used in Oswego, and in her book — asking students to imagine themselves into the minds and contexts of people in very different times, places, and situations than their own — “is widely used; the vast majority of these assignments are misguided and thoughtless,” Ms. Wiemer said. “They are being given on a regular basis across this country, and the vast majority of them go unchallenged and unreported.
“Teachers feel that they should teach history from both sides. They don’t recognize that this is extremely harmful and hurtful. A typical assignment is asking students to recreate the Underground Railroad.
“There is no way that doing obstacle courses in any way recreates the trauma.” Nor do other, similar exercises, like putting Black students in pretend chains to simulate what their ancestors must have felt. It does not, but it does harm both them and the white students who watch. Such exercises both demean the people who had to undergo and either survive or fail to survive them and diminish their brutality and evil.
“It’s like having students sleep in a tent for a night so they can understand what it’s like to be homeless,” Ms. Wiemer said.
When students are given assignments like these and they object — most of the time they don’t, and neither do their parents — “there are basically two ways a school will react. Sometimes a school will double down and justify why they feel that this is right. Or they will immediately recognize the harm it causes and stop it.
“Personally, I think that it is much better for the school and the community if it can be handled without it hitting the media,” she continued. “Overall, that is a much healthier experience, and it leads to better communication.” But sometimes, as in Oswego and then in “The Assignment,” that doesn’t work. “Then it has to hit the news in order for it to be stopped.”
The assignment in her book is meant to teach about antisemitism, but in trying to recreate a scene of deadly historic antisemitism that had catastrophic effects on real lives, it went too far. “It crosses a moral line,” Ms. Wiemer said. “There is absolutely no justification for genocide,” but the students, in their roles as Nazis, were asked to provide such justifications. “The real teens,” the ones she based her story on, “recognized that. So did the teens in my novel, and they stick to their guns. They have the courage to draw a clear line between what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Her novel does not discuss the real teens’ motivations and backstories. That would be an invasion of their privacy, something Ms. Wiemer does not want to do. “In my novel, one of the characters recognizes clearly that it is immoral to justify genocide. It is necessary to learn about the Holocaust and what the Nazis believed, but we should never try to justify it.
“This assignment creates cognitive dissonance. The moment you open the door to those arguments, you allow them some justification. Unfortunately, we live in a society where people feel that these kinds of value systems, which we see in white supremacy, are acceptable.
“But there has to be a clear line. This doesn’t belong in the classroom.”
Something about Ms. Wiemer’s novel seems to have hit a societal nerve. It’s won many awards and has been named a 2021 Sydney Taylor notable book; Sydney Taylor wrote the deeply beloved All-Of-A-Kind Family novels.
Ms. Wiemer is a speaker as well as a novelist and she leads workshops; she’s been going around the newly reopened-after-covid country to talk about her book. She’s spoken at Jewish and secular private and public schools, as well as to other Jewish groups.
As deeply Jewish as she is — “you can’t take the Jewish out of Liza Wiemer,” she said — “I am so grateful and humbled to see that this book is having a direct and concrete impact on putting a stop to antisemitism.” (She’s also passionate about other kinds of hatred and bigotry; her Jewish values make her want justice for everyone, she added.)
“We have seen similar projects across the country. The book has empowered students to speak to their teachers, and because of it these assignments have been stopped again and again.
“And I have been contacted by teachers who have said that they’ve given similar assignments in the past, but they’ll never do that again.
“That’s what we want,” she continued. “We don’t want it hitting the news. The vast majority of teachers say this is something they’ve done for years. They didn’t see how it could be harmful.” Now they know, she added.
“We often say that if we don’t learn history, we are doomed to repeat it,” Ms. Wiemer said. “But I see history differently. History is not stuck in the past. It lives within and outside of us, influencing our actions today.”
History is never over. “If you are a Holocaust survivor, that still impacts you today, and it also impacts our children and grandchildren. That’s the same for all of us who have suffered something in the past. Being in the past doesn’t mean that it’s over. It still influences our actions.
“That’s why a novel like ‘The Assignment’ is so important. It makes that connection. It shows clearly how the past influences the choices and the actions of the characters, and of society.
“And until we learn from it, until we chose different ways to treat each other, then we are going to have to continue to deal with it in the now.
“I see each human being as a thread in the fabric of humanity,” Ms. Wiemer concluded. We are each a thread. Our actions and our words from the past and from now can have a profound effect on the future.”
Learn more about Liza Wiemer from her website, lizawiemer.com.