Holocaust role-playing misses mark

Sunday, March 23, 1997

“As part of a unit on the Holocaust, a tenth-grade teacher
in our community assigned a role-playing activity that has created
controversy. Students who volunteer to participate wear the Star
of David (yellow, pink, white, etc.) for about a week. Their teachers
and classmates in other classes are told to treat them badly in
order to give them a better understanding of how those persecuted
by the Nazis might have felt. Teachers, for example, might ignore
students who are wearing the stars. A number of parents and community
people have objected to this activity, saying that it is offensive.
Is this role-play an appropriate way to teach about the Holocaust?”

Susan Mogull, Sacramento, Calif.

While this assignment may not be unconstitutional, it is highly
inappropriate for at least three reasons.

First, the yellow Star of David should not be used in a role-playing
activity. This symbol has deep significance for the Jewish people
and is a reminder to all humanity of the unspeakable atrocities
of the Nazi regime. Students should learn about this symbol and
others as they study the evil of the Holocaust, but care must
be taken not to trivialize the symbol through reenactment.

An alternative might be for the teacher to use another more
generic symbol in a role-play that gives students some experience
of how it feels to be singled out and treated differently because
of the symbol they wear.

Second, parents should be informed when students are involved
in exercises that involve their feelings.
If teachers assign such activities, even on a voluntary
basis, then parents should be asked for permission.

School officials should always remember that parents have the
right to primary responsibility for their children's upbringing,
including education. True, parents delegate some of this responsibility
to teachers when they send their children to public schools. But
teachers and administrators need to make sure that parents are
fully informed about what goes on at school, particularly when
a policy or practice may be controversial.

Third, involving teachers and students who are not part of the
class is a bad idea. Students who do not understand the context
of the exercise may trivialize the activity, learning little more
than how to tease or harass their fellow students for being different.
Role-playing that involves lessons about discrimination should
be confined to the class where historical material is carefully
taught and discussed, so that students are able to understand
the seriousness of these lessons.

We should applaud the motives of the teacher who assigned this
role-play activity. Helping students comprehend the prejudice
and hatred that fueled the Holocaust is a worthy objective. Nevertheless,
the role-play as currently designed risks violating parental rights
and undermining the very lessons it is attempting to teach. Teachers
need to take great care in teaching about the sensitive and emotionally charged subject of the Holocaust.