ALBANY, N.Y. – New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is fending off calls for her resignation over recent comments she made about a controversial assignment that tasked students with arguing for the “Final Solution,” Nazi Germany’s plan to exterminate Jews.
The assignment was given to students as part of an Oswego County CiTi/BOCES New Vision program earlier this year, and Elia responded to a reporter’s question about her views on the approach during a round-table discussion at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo late last month, Syracuse.com reports.
“I think it’s certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze … which position a person is taking,” the education commissioner said. “That idea of being able to identify the perspective an article has or a writer has is a very important skill.”
The former Buffalo social studies teacher said context for the assignment, such as the age of students, other materials provided, and how the lesson was presented, “would influence the appropriateness or not.”
“The concept of having students identify a particular position is pretty critical, whether they can analyze a position, and then decide whether to agree or not,” Elia said.
The assignment doled out in Michael DeNobile’s “Principles of Literary Representation” class tasked students with “writing an internal memo within the Nazi party either for or against the Final Solution, using the arguments of the top level officials of the Nazi party,” according to a copy posted online.
The assignment also clearly states “The point of this activity is not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view.
“Ultimately, this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zine and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe,” it read.
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Two students in the class – Archer Shurtliff and Jordan April – told Syracuse.com DeNobile randomly assigned half the class to argue for the Final Solution, and the other half against. The students said they were “disturbed” by the lesson, and it made them feel “weird.”
Syracuse.com published the students’ grievances the same day Elia visited the zoo.
On Monday, Elia issued a prepared statement amid heated criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and others, who argued the assignment was wrong under all circumstances and called on the district to banish the lesson.
“Since first learning of the assignment, I’ve done my homework to determine the facts of this situation,” Elia wrote, according to Syracuse.com. “I spoke with district officials about this serious matter. We agree the assignment should not have been given. The teacher apologized and the assignment will not be used in the future.”
Regardless, at least one group is pushing to use the episode to oust Elia – The Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA in Westchester County, Breaking911 reports.
“As Commissioner Elia is well aware, our school districts are experiencing a dramatic rise in expressions of hate and intolerance, including a proliferation of swastikas on school property. Our own district has experienced this in recent months. We are disheartened and discouraged that not only did our Commissioner fail to defend tolerance and peace, but worse, she originally supported the hateful assignment,” the group wrote in a letter to the state Board of Regents.
“Her limited attempt to fix her initial error in judgment fell flat, and frankly made matters worse. We had hoped for more from Commissioner Elia, especially in light of the her recent support of transgender students when the federal rules on bathroom use changed, but the Commissioner determined not to make a much needed statement, even after her initial insult,” the letter continued.
The Commissioner’s lack of judgment and understanding on the issue of Jewish genocide (or possibly any genocide) makes it impossible for us to support her as the top education spokesperson and decision-maker for New York,” the PTSA wrote. “For these reasons, we ask for the immediate removal of Commissioner Elia.”