The Assignment is what happens when privilege gets in the way | Mentoring in the Middle

The Assignment is what happens when privilege gets in the way

 When is a school debate more than just a debate?  Must you participate if you are required to defend something you despise?  Isn't walking in someone else's shoes a good thing?  When is it crossing the line?

Cover of book The Assignment by Liza Wiemer

"Mr. Bartley isn't any teacher.  He's a great teacher, my favorite teacher...

     Soon after Mr. Bartley started teaching at Riviere High School my sophomore year, he became our most popular teacher.  He has the kind of smile that makes you know you've been seen, that you matter.  During lunch and his free periods, his room is always filled with students....He makes history exciting, interesting, and challenging."

Logan and Cade, high school seniors, are given an assignment in History of World Governments to debate "a Final Solution of the Jewish Questions and to share perspectives on how to resolve the storage problem of Europe's eleven million Jews."  One side will argue for extermination, the other for sterilization, ghettos, and work camps.  This replicates the discussion that took place at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin on January 20, 1942.  Mr. Bartley understands that this is asking a lot of his students, but he believes that history is filled with horrors beyond and since the Holocaust and that people need to better understand those decisions.

Think about this for a moment. Most of us would disagree with this assignment,  But how often do we ask students to step into a character's shoes, hoping for them to think more deeply?  

Sneakers facing words Do Not Cross painted on yellow line on street

It happened to me.

As part of our Social Studies unit, 6th graders at my school studied Native American tribes across North America.  In groups, they researched a tribe and learned about their customs, ways of life, food, child-rearing, etc.  They presented their research to the class and served them food, taught them how to play a game, or taught them a craft.  It was a lot of fun and students seemed to enjoy it.  

Wanting to keep the momentum going, I created a writing assignment that we worked on step-by-step, guided by questions I'd developed.  The assignment:  Imagine that you are a Cherokee boy on the morning you leave on your vision quest. With the questions as our guide, we walked into the woods together, past a stream and up a mountain.  

About a year after I uploaded it to TeachersPayTeachers, I received an email from them saying they were taking it down because it didn't conform to their policies on inclusion.  Bewildered at first because I'd spent so much time researching it and handling it as respectfully as I could, I came to understand that I was looking at the assignment through my eyes of privilege and so I changed it.  

And that's what happens in The Assignment. Cade and Logan explain their opinions to Mr. Bartley and Principal McNeil and even come up with an alternate assignment.  They don't understand why no one feels as strongly as they do that the original assignment is wrong.  Students even side against them and as opinions are shared on social media and in the press, the community increasingly takes sides.  Hateful exchanges take place.

Told from a number of different viewpoints, this book by Liza Wiemer will challenge your middle and high school students, and lead to some lively, necessary discussions.

Lest you think this book, published in 2020 and based on a true story, is about a one-time event, Wiemer explains in her notes about a teacher who asked students to write good and bad reasons for slavery, white students who bid on Black students in a mock auction, students studying the Holocaust who were given choices that included drawing a concentration camp, and a student who portrayed Hitler in a living history assignment.

The Assignment is fast-paced and easily relatable.  It's also an excellent launching pad for discussions about bullying and racism, that touchy topic we need to address in our classrooms, but sometimes hesitate because we don't know where to start.  Use this book to get you started.

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