Monthly Archives: May 2014

Lessons from the Holocaust Denial Essay Disaster

Auschwitz-BirkenauA school assignment came into the news recently regarding a controversial essay. 8th grade students in California’s Rialto Unified School District were given an essay assignment in which they had to argue whether the Holocaust was a real event or a hoax. The students were given documents on each side of the argument to use in their case’s defense.

Understandably, this assignment has created an outpouring of anger and disgust from the public. The Anti-Defamation League has voiced its objection and contacted the district. Parents and advocates are outraged. The superintendent has even received death threats. The assignment is being called everything from foolish to dangerous and anti-Semitic. The Board of Education has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the assignment, apologized, and returned it back to the teachers to rewrite.

The topic:

When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing 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. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

I’m going to go into this with the assumption that the Rialto Unified Board of Education is not a pack of raving anti-Semites with the insidious goal of turning students into raving anti-Semites. If they are, well, then reason goes out the window. But having worked in education, I can reasonably predict that what happened was a gross misjudgment, a seriously bad question written with good intent but terrible delivery.

The intent of the assignment is, I would think, to lead students to see that the Holocaust Denial movement is ill-founded and false. The essay itself, though, is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that Reality vs. Hoax is not a legitimate debate. The Holocaust happened. It is real; there is nothing to debate. But to conspiracy theorists, any evidence in their favor is touted and any evidence against them is declared to be fabricated. How could anyone win an argument against someone like that?

For an argumentative essay topics to be fair, the two sides must both have equal weight. In an essay about whether or not students should wear uniforms, for example, arguments both logical and emotional could be made for either side. But Holocaust Reality vs. Hoax is not a debate. There IS no debate. If you give students two documents supporting and two opposing a claim, but don’t tell them that in fact there are millions of photographs, videos, personal testimonies, physical scars, embedded tattoos, and missing loved ones as proof of the Holocaust, it sets up an artificial equality for the grounds of debate.

Compounding this is the fact that most 8th grade students lack the critical skills to engage this topic meaningfully. In many cases, 8th grade is their first exposure to the Holocaust. Give them a debate and they will accept uncritically the grounds for that debate.

In my own class of 8th graders, students are reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a standard text for this age. To ensure the students would appreciate Frank’s testimony, I spent nearly two weeks sharing with them information about anti-Semitism, the causes and events of the Holocaust, individual stories of different victims, and a broader exploration of how prejudice leads to discrimination which leads to violence and genocide. For most of my students, this was their first engagement with the Holocaust, and they craved to know more.

A few of my students did “independent research” on Google and came across a number of Denial websites. They tried to argue with me about the compelling evidence they saw. They said it made a lot of sense to them. I attempted to explain to them how conspiracy theories work, and that these loonies explain away any evidence against them. They seemed unconvinced, and the exchange has left me troubled.

Back to the Rialto Unified fiasco, I won’t try and relieve the administration of responsibility. The essay assignment was terrible. But as an educator, I can make a few guesses as to what happened. First of all, the essay is surely an attempt to create a Common Core-aligned essay. For those not in education, the Common Core is a set of nationalized educational standards that nearly every state has adopted. Every state, district, supervisor, and teacher is being pressured (professionally and financially) to implement them. And the Holocaust Denial essay was designed to be in alignment with Core standards, specifically regarding critical thinking skills and use of primary source documents.

More than likely, here is the scenario that occurred: the district mandated that the Language Arts department develop a document-based essay question for all 8th grade students. A group of teachers, likely already overtaxed and harried with responsibilities, formulated the question in question. How they came up with this prompt, I can’t say. Maybe they dashed it off, just another item on a to-do list that wasn’t given appropriate consideration. Maybe they thought they were being bold and provocative. Maybe they thought that this essay would help students see the futility of Holocaust Denial. In any case, the question is bad. Which happens. No teacher bats 1.000.

But then the prompt was surely rubber-stamped by supervisors, principals, and Board of Education members, all of whom had more pressing duties than discussing middle school essay questions. By the time someone looked up and said, “What the hell?”, news and social media had already done that for them. And by the district’s own acknowledgement, the problem was a lack of internal checks and balances.

What can we learn from this?

What I have learned is that teaching students about Holocaust Denial might be an important component of teaching them about the Holocaust itself. If I don’t address that some of the “information” out there is actually garbage, they might stumble on it and believe it.

And what can the field of education learn? Perhaps the lesson is that without taking a little time to check each other’s work, bad ideas can be greenlit and taken too far. Perhaps the lesson is that without giving students context, their learning is at best hampered and at worst entirely misguided. Or perhaps the lesson is that when contrived and artificial questions are created for the sole purpose of assessing students by some arbitrary standards, bad things result.

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Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, is a comic master at putting a twist on old tales and themes. He has a trilogy of vampire novels. His novel, Lamb, is the story of Christ’s youth told from the point of view of Biff, his childhood pal. A Dirty Job makes the Grim Reaper a mild-mannered secondhand shop owner. His novel, Fool, tells the story of King Lear from the point of view of the king’s fool, a short-statured, sharp-tongued, well-endowed jester named Pocket. Pocket’s apprentice is a dimwitted giant named Drool, who doesn’t understand basic human interaction or any nuance of language, but has a good heart and can perfectly mimic voices.

Moore’s most recent novel, The Serpent of Venice, follows Pocket and Drool again. This time, Moore doesn’t just tackle a Shakespeare play. He tackles two, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and mixes in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is an ambitious novel, which makes its success all the more thrilling.

Beware: Moore doesn’t hesitate to alter the original storylines. Most notably, several characters are killed off that do not die in the original plays. Whereas Fool kept the plot of Lear but told it from a new point of view, Serpent is more original.

Another element that carries over well from Fool is the written voice. Moore employs a mixture of excerpts of text from the source material, a sort of faux-Shakespearean that uses Elizabethan language but is entirely original Moore writing (he does this with the whiz-banger insults, especially), and plain-old modern anachronism. It seems like these three elements: authentic old, fake old, and contemporary– would make a horrifying, clanging mess for the voice, but actually it works well. Thus it comes across perfectly believably when Shylock asks “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and one of the Sals (Salanio or Salerino) whines “I didn’t know there was going to be a bloody quiz!”

One of Moore’s greatest strengths as a comic writer is that he also dips into heartfelt territory, too. The funny parts are funny, but even more so when set against the truly moving parts. As funny as Pocket is, he starts out as a grieving widower being tortured by a maniac. To me, this elevates Moore above the label of “comic writer,” a term I associate with writers who make me giggle but little else.

Moore also does “character management” well, knowing just how much of each character to use. I felt that in the vampire trilogy, the character Abby Normal made a great side character, but became tiresome as a protagonist. I worried about this when I read Serpent, that the highly entertaining Drool would take on such a prominence that his voice would overpower the story. But Drool is kept in reserve until the second half of the novel, and when he appears, it’s great. One can almost hear the resounding cheers of fans around the world.

In fact, Serpent might be one of Moore’s greatest achievements. Between the technical mastery of juggling multiple storylines and characters, the brilliantly blended styles of old and new, and the harmony of shenanigans and earnest emotion, The Serpent of Venice is a smart, fun, funny novel.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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