Rialto Unified Essay Aftermath: How to Teach Kids about the Holocaust

Article excerpt

In education, the controversy over Rialto Unified assigning eighth-graders to write an essay on the reality or unreality of the Holocaust is what's known as a "teachable moment."

"What scares me and worries me and troubles me ... is that teachers could think this is a good assignment," said Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, a leading expert on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial. "There are not two sides to every issue. ... Sometimes wrong is just wrong: Child abuse is just wrong. Beating up your spouse is just wrong. Holocaust denial is just wrong."

This spring, the district's approximately 2,000 eighth-graders were assigned an essay topic that directed them to "read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe (the Holocaust) was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth."

The assignment was meant to accompany the eighth-grade "Diary of Anne Frank" unit the students would be working on in English class. It sparked a national uproar, prompting the district's school board to publicly apologize for it on Wednesday night during an emergency board meeting.

Although some speakers at Wednesday's meeting criticized Rialto Unified for teaching the Holocaust to eighth-graders, "The Diary of Anne Frank" is a staple in many middle school classrooms, according to Matt Friedman, associate regional director on Anti-Defamation League.

"It's very typical to begin introducing the (Holocaust) in middle school," he said Friday. "We often do see it in seventh and eighth grade."

Historians estimate 6 million Jews - about two of every three in Europe - were killed by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. In some European countries, including Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by incarceration.

In California, the Holocaust is part of state standards for tenth- grade students, including using the Holocaust as a "springboard" to discuss human rights, intolerance and racism.

"There's no student in the state of California who should have not encountered the teaching the Holocaust in the course of their high school education," said Marilyn Lubarsky, Upland High School social studies teacher who has also worked to train other teachers on how to teach the Holocaust.

In addition to studying it in World History in 10th grade and in American History in 11th grade, many districts, including Rialto Unified, teach it in English class in eighth grade, as part of the larger context for "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"How it is taught and how much time is spent on it, is up to the decision of the individual classroom teacher," Lubarsky said.

In some communities, the basic concepts are introduced even earlier, through children's books like "Terrible Things" by Eve Bunting.

"It's not explicitly about the Holocaust but it talks about analogies, with animals in the forest disappearing," one group at a time, while the other animals stand by and do nothing, Friedman said.

"The Holocaust didn't happen in a vacuum. You need to talk about anti-Semitism and the roots of it," he said. "You need to talk about the Jewish civilization that was obliterated by the Holocaust," including European Jewish media, universities and other cultural institutions.

One problem, though, is that many English teachers may not have studied the Holocaust since they were in high schools themselves.

"Most teachers in California, 80 percent come out of the Cal State system," said Lubarsky, a 27-year veteran of teaching. "If they have a history credential, they've taken at least one course, presumably, where the material has come up. But if these are English teachers, they may have not."

Addressing that gap falls on districts that, in recent years, have had to cut back on teacher training during the state's budget crisis, which hit public school districts hard. …