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Maugham Elementary School Adolf Hitler assignment controversy

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In early April 2021,[1] a fifth-grade teacher at Maugham Elementary School, a public grammar school in Tenafly, New Jersey, instructed a 5th grade student to dress up as Adolf Hitler and to write a first-person essay from the perspective of the Nazi leader touting his "accomplishments" as a part of a class assignment.[2][3][4][5][6] In May 2021, the details of the school assignment became known to the public, leading to outrage in the community, which has a substantial Jewish population.[1][3][7][8] After initially defending the teacher and the school's actions,[9][10] the board of Tenafly Public Schools suspended the teacher and the principal of the school with pay and opened an investigation into the incident.[11][12]

Background[edit]

Tenafly, New Jersey is a borough within Bergen County, New Jersey. Bergen county has one of the largest Jewish populations within the United States, and Tenafly is nicknamed "Little Tel Aviv" owing to its particularly sizeable Israeli and Jewish populations.[3] Maugham Elementary School is an elementary school within the Tenafly Public Schools district, which serves students living in the Borough of Tenafly. The Post Millennial reports that parents describe the school district as "40% Jewish".[13][14] Greater than 3% of households in the borough speak Hebrew at home.[15]

Assignment[edit]

A fifth-grade teacher working at Maughan Elementary School created and assigned was a "character development project" in which students would be asked to write from the perspective of notable individual.[3][16][17] Students were directed to dress up as a historical figure and to write an essay from that historical figure's perspective.[2][6][17][18][19] These characters included Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, and Jim Carrey.[3]

Student assigned to Adolf Hitler[edit]

One student's historical character was that of Adolf Hitler.[3][12][19] The student, whose historical character was approved by the teacher who issued the assignment, proceeded to write a biography of Hitler that glorified the Nazi leader, stated that Hitler's "greatest accomplishment was uniting a great mass of German and Austrian people" in his support, framed the Holocaust in a positive light, and added that Hitler was "pretty great".[3][12][18] The student was instructed by the teacher to dress up as Hitler for a presentation that the student made to the rest of the fifth-grade class.[6][7] After the presentation was made, the student's essay was displayed publicly within the school's hallway during the month of April.[1][3][7][20][15]

Becoming public knowledge[edit]

While the assignment and presentation took place in April, the fact that a fifth-grade student dressed up as Hitler and wrote an essay praising the dictator did not become known until late May when a parent posted a screenshot of the pencil-written essay on Facebook.[1][8][21][22] News regarding the essay and the student dressing up as Hitler emerged during a time where targeted antisemitic violence within the United States had been on the rise.[3]

School district response[edit]

As the news of the assignment became public, the board of Tenafly Public Schools District initially defended the teacher, writing in a statement that the teacher who made the assignment "happens to be Jewish" and that community members "did not understand the assignment" correctly.[9][23] At the time, the school's superintendent wrote that "it is unfair to judge any student or teacher in this matter" and that those outraged by the assignment had taken the assignment "out of context."[10][16][24] The district stated that the assignment was to focus on a historical figure that personified good or evil.[2][11]

One day after the superintendent's statement was made in defense of the teacher who created the assignment, the school district suspended the teacher and the school's principal with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.[7][12][16][23] At that time, the district told parents that the assignment was not in compliance with the district's curriculum standards.[2][7]

Public reaction[edit]

News of the assignment, and the display of the student's essay in the school's hallway for several weeks beginning in early April, was widely met with shock and outrage.[6][11][12][25][26] The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for New York and New Jersey expressed shock that a student had been given this assignment and publicly condemned the teacher for issuing it.[7][9]

Local Jewish groups sharply criticized the school and the school district, writing that the school acted with "poor and inexcusable judgment" and was failing to be transparent in the aftermath of the incident.[18] A Tenafly rabbi told The Jewish Standard that "it boggles the mind that a teacher would... let a student do a project on Hitler’s accomplishments, as if he were a great leader" and that it was "an insult not only to Jews but also to all Americans, and a terrible error in judgment, to have a student do this project."[27] Another local Jewish community leader told the newspaper that "[r]egardless of the educational intent here, the teacher failed to recognize the profound impact this can have on students, family members and others in our community who could perceive this project as condoning or even glorifying the atrocities of one of the most evil individuals in world history."[27]

Local Jewish groups defended the student and the student's family after the family was targeted, writing that harm caused by vitriol directed towards the 11-year old student was undeserved and that neither the student nor the student's family acted with antisemitic intent.[18] The school board stated that it had taken actions to defend the student after local groups determined that the student did not act with antisemitic intent.[28]

A petition was circulated in support of the teacher who had issued the assignment and many parents spoke in support of the student, teacher, and principal during a school board meeting that took place shortly after the controversy began.[2][28] The editorial board of The Newark Star-Ledger defended the teacher and the student, writing that "the teacher succeeded" in teaching about the Holocaust and that "context matters" when evaluating the assignment.[29] In an opinion piece published by The Record, writer Mary Chao said that the outrage over the assignment was described by Asian-American parents as the result of cultural misunderstanding.[30]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 DeMarco, Jerry (31 May 2021). "Tenafly 5th Grader Dresses As Hitler For Class Project: 'Pretty Great Wasn't I?'". Daily Voice.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Eyewitness News (4 June 2021). "Teacher, principal on leave after student's project on Hitler in New Jersey town". ABC 7.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Beachum, Lateshia (1 June 2021). "Fifth-grader dresses as Hitler, lauds dictator's 'accomplishments.' A N.J. district is investigating". The Washington Post.
  4. "New Jersey, bambina di 9 anni si traveste da Hitler per un compito. Scoppia la polemica: «È antisemitismo»". Il Mattino. 3 June 2021.
  5. "Daily Kickoff". Jewish Insider. 3 June 2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Freda, Gerry (4 June 2021). "Entra in classe "travestita da Hitler". Bufera in una scuola elementare". Il Giornale.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 "NJ Elementary Student's Assignment Appearing to Glorify Hitler Sparks Outrage". NBC New York. 1 June 2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Sheldon, Chris (2 June 2020). "School reviewing 5th grade student's first-person Hitler essay". NJ.com.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Galluccio, Bill (3 June 2021). "New Jersey School Board Defends 5th Grade Teacher Over Hitler Assignment". NewsRadio WFLA.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Madani, Doha (2 June 2021). "New Jersey school board defends 5th grade student and teacher over Hitler assignment". NBC News.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Katzban, Nicholas (4 June 2021). "New Jersey teacher, principal on paid leave after student's report on Hitler's 'accomplishments'". USA Today. Gannett. NorthJersey.com.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Alexander, Dan (1 June 2021). "Tenafly, NJ 5th grade project on Hitler as 'great' being probed". NJ101.5.
  13. Hoffmann, Ari (31 May 2021). "EXCLUSIVE: NJ fifth-grader dresses as Adolf Hitler for class presentation, 'I was pretty great wasn't I?'". The Post Millennial.
  14. Verbin, Dan (1 June 2021). "NJ 5th grader gives presentation dressed as Hitler". Arutz Sheva.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "'I Was Pretty Great, Wasn't I?': Outrage Over Display of Flattering Hitler Bio at New Jersey Elementary School". The Algemeiner. 1 June 2021.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Sheldon, Chris (4 June 2021). "Teacher who assigned first-person Hitler essay placed on leave, superintendent says". NJ.com.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Sheldon, Chris (2 June 2021). "5th grade student's first-person Hitler essay 'taken out of context,' district says". NJ.com.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Katzban, Nicholas (2 June 2021). "Jewish groups call on community to quell anger toward Tenafly student over Hitler essay". NorthJersey.com.
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Outrage as fifth grader from New Jersey dresses up as Hitler for school assignment". Jerusalem Post. 2 June 2021.
  20. Ford, James; Cook, Lauren (1 June 2021). "'I was pretty great, wasn't I': NJ student's Hitler presentation under investigation, school district says". PIX 11.
  21. "小學習作|美國十歲女扮希特勒講「成就」 家長抨擊學校惹全城關注". Apple Daily (Taiwan). 4 June 2021.
  22. Kenney, Tanasia (2 June 2021). "'Appalling' or misunderstood? NJ child's school project on Hitler stirs backlash". Miami Herald.
  23. 23.0 23.1 "Teacher, principal placed on paid administrative leave following student's controversial project on Hitler". News 12. 4 June 2021.
  24. Aaro, David (4 June 2021). "NJ elementary student's first-person Hitler essay sparks outrage, probe underway". Fox 13 Tampa Bay.
  25. Westhoven, William (1 June 2021). "Student's report on Hitler's 'accomplishments' was displayed in an elementary school for weeks, parent says". USA Today. Gannett. NorthJersey.com.
  26. Westhoven, William (31 May 2021). "NJ student's report on Hitler's 'pretty great' accomplishments prompts outrage". Detroit Free Press. NorthJersey.com.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Palmer, Joanne (2 June 2021). "'I was very popular…'". The Jewish Standard. The Times of Israel.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Noda, Stephanie (8 June 2021). "Tenafly parents voice support for student, principal, teacher after Hitler school report". NorthJersey.com.
  29. Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board (10 June 2021). "A teachable moment in Tenafly. Just not the one you'd expect". The Newark Star-Ledger.
  30. Chao, Mary (10 June 2021). "Cultural nuances contributed to Tenafly Hitler controversy". The Bergen Record. Archived from the original on 10 June 2021.


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