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School superintendent defends Common Core assignment questioning Holocaust

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“All right, class. Today, we are going to test your ability to think critically. I want you write a paper arguing, pro or con, that the story of the transatlantic slave trade was a political hoax manufactured to sway public emotion.”

The putative assignment above would be grounds for the immediate dismissal of a teacher anywhere in the country. But imagine the same task in which the phrase transatlantic slave trade was replaced by Holocaust. Would any school district countenance its dissemination to middle school students?

The San Bernardino Sun confirms that it not only would be but was by the Rialto Unified School District, of Rialto, Calif. The office of the district’s interim superintendent — whose name is Mohammad Z. Islam — maintains that the assignment is intended “merely to teach students to evaluate the quality of evidence made by advocates or opponents of an issue.”

Here is the assignment, which was handed out in April:

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.

District spokeswoman Syeda Jafri explains that the assignment was developed by district teachers in connection with the eighth grade’s reading of the “Diary of Anne Frank” in April. It is aligned with Common Core Standards, which promote, among other things, critical thinking skills.

The Los Angeles-based Anti-Defamation League expressed its concerns to Superintendent Islam on Friday. Matthew Friedman, associate regional director of the L.A. office, said in an email:

An exercise asking students to question whether the Holocaust happened has no academic value; it only gives legitimacy to the hateful and anti-Semitic promoters of Holocaust denial.

It is also very dangerous to ask junior high school students to question the reality of the Holocaust on their own, given the sheer volume of denial websites out there. If these questions do come up, it’s better to show the huge preponderance of evidence that’s out there (testimony, documentation, death camp sites, archaeology, etc.) and to also question why people would question the reality of the Holocaust (many motivated not by historical curiosity, but by anti-Semitism). Also, who are the people questioning the Holocaust and what do real historians say? This is more of an issue of teaching good information literacy.

School board member Joe Martinez emailed back the following reply:

One of the most important responsibilities for educators is to develop critical thinking skills in students. “This will allow a person to come to their [sic] own conclusion. Current events are part of the basis for measuring IQ. The Middle East, Israel, Palestine and the Holocaust are on newscasts discussing current events. Teaching how to come to your [sic] own conclusion based on the facts, test your position, be able to articulate that position, then defend your belief with a lucid argument is essential to good citizenship. This thought process creates the foundation for a good education. The progression is within district board policy and also supports the district’s student inspired motto: ‘Today’s Scholars, Tomorrow’s Leaders.’

Jafri insists that Rialto Unified has received no complaints regarding the assignment. She adds:

There is no doubt the Holocaust was one of the most horrific, traumatic time-pieces in our history. We want our students to engage in developing critical thinking skills and have an in-depth perspective on the importance of the Holocaust. Although I received one email last week in reference to this subject, the district has not received any concerns about this writing prompt from any teachers, administrators or parents. However, due to its sensitive nature, we are always open to go back and examine the [writing] prompt.

Los Angles ABC affiliate KABC reported yesterday that Jafri has received death threats. If true, that just makes an abominable situation worse.

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