How would you respond if you learned a student’s assignment was to pretend to be a Nazi? Liza Wiemer, an award-winning educator with over twenty years of teaching experience, responded by writing the young adult novel The Assignment, published in 2020 by Delacorte Press. As was also true in her first YA, Hello?, Liza’s characters don’t speed through conflicts; they look to be honest about them and demand solutions.
It was inspiring to chat this spring with Liza about The Assignment and how and when the book reflects real life.
Todd Wellman: Real instances of modern-day students being told to pretend to be Nazis inspired your novel The Assignment. Since it came out, you’ve been asked to present at schools. What is a typical request from one of the schools or concerned people like?
Liza Wiemer: I’ve been very fortunate to speak at many schools around the country about The Assignment. It’s a great opportunity to empower students to speak up against bigotry, hatred, and injustice. The Assignment helps students think about different ways that they can be upstanders. Not everyone is comfortable confronting teachers directly, but that doesn’t mean that their voices aren’t still important. I loved exploring different ways of protesting an assignment like this. I’ve been tagged in many posts on social media about assignments similar to the one in my novel. I will reach out and offer my assistance to deal with the assignment and many have taken me up on the offer. Thankfully, it’s made a difference. I’m grateful that my novel has enabled me to help students and parents navigate what to do to get assignments like this canceled. Speaking out is hard, so I walk them through the steps. So far, everyone I’ve worked with has had success.
Liza Wiemer’s novel The Assignment is out now. You can order it here.
TW: What’s an easy and effective thing to say to someone to show that such assignments are not good?
LW: The first thing that I suggest is that a student or parent approach the teacher and explain why the assignment is inappropriate. For example: It’s reprehensible that you would ask us to give any “good reasons to enslave people. There are never any good reasons. Please change this assignment.”
Sadly, this kind of assignment has been given multiple times. It’s racist, and I highly recommend that the school provide anti-racist, anti-bias training for the teachers. A meaningful and thoughtful apology is also critical, explaining that this was at the very least poor judgment and thoughtless. Teachers are human. They make mistakes. Yet, there is absolutely no room for assignments like this and they must be addressed immediately.
There is nothing wrong with learning about what the Nazis did, but asking students to pretend that they’re Nazis and advocate for their position is curriculum violence and promotes cognitive dissonance. No one should have to defend the indefensible. I’ve also seen assignments asking students to reenact the Trail of Tears, Holocaust survivors, or the Underground Railroad. These, too, are reprehensible. It’s appalling to think that students could ever put themselves “in the shoes of” indigenous people, survivors, or enslaved people. How could anyone other than those who actually live it truly understand the horrendous trauma that they endured? Reenactments are harmful and can never capture the true experience of what people went through. This is not the way to elicit sympathy or compassion. This is not the way to learn history. Understanding what’s inhumane and immoral can be taught without having students participate in these kinds of activities.
TW: Educators who assign their students to pretend to be Nazis, not to mention slaveholders and other terrible roles, say they do it because it’s good for students to think critically and understand all sides of an issue. While it’s not your job to provide a different assignment to take the place of the misguided ones, if you did change or replace the assignments, what would you offer?
LW: I think there is nothing more powerful than hearing about the Holocaust from a survivor or from a second-generation family member. These direct stories are incredibly powerful. Reading books like The Assignment is also important, although what makes The Assignment unique is that it connects the past to today. I believe that’s a critical part of teaching history. Otherwise, there is a disconnect, especially for students who don’t find the topic of particular interest. But when we explain history’s impact on what is going on in our world today, there is a deeper meaning. As far as alternatives, there are so many options, too many to mention here. But one example would be that I would have students learn about acts of resistance during these time periods and relate it to how they can be upstanders today. Another would be looking at the propaganda that was utilized in the past and how it influenced people during that time and then looking at what we see online today. There are tremendous resources available through local Holocaust education centers, the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Learning for Justice.
TW: As I read your novel, I thought a lot about the students’ families, on the page and off. The school is one system they exist in; family is another, not to mention the town. Your ask of schools seems clear: Stop this assignment. What’s your ask of families and towns or cities?
LW: In The Assignment, both of my main characters’ families were very supportive, so that is what I would hope others in similar situations would receive from their parents. When it comes to assignments like this, it’s up to the teacher and the principal—when brought to their attention—to recognize that the assignment is wrong and put an end to it immediately. It’s important that anti-bias education is provided to the staff—as well as sensitivity training. I would hope that members of the community would be supportive. The vast majority of assignments like this do not hit the news. It’s always best if it can be handled within the school environment. I would highly encourage community members to make sure that anti-bias and anti-racist education is a critical part of school curriculum. It should begin in preschool.
But this requires that teachers have proper training and continue to examine their own belief systems. Just because someone receives training doesn’t mean that they don’t hold onto unhealthy biases. It’s a process that requires thoughtful contemplation and action. I’ve met people who are really passionate about anti-bias, anti-racist behavior and education, yet they still will make comments that are inappropriate. We’re human. We’re not going to be perfect. We need to acknowledge that change doesn’t always happen immediately. We need to be vigilant with what we say and do. Even people with the very best of intentions make mistakes. The question is, when confronted, are they willing to acknowledge the error? One thing I know for certain is that, for many, it’s not easy to stop, think about it, and admit that they could do better. People get defensive. It can be instinctive and is often a first response. But for change to happen, this process of self-examination regarding our thoughts, speech, and actions needs to be at the forefront of our minds. So, as much as assignments like this are about a student, their families, the class, the school, the community, it’s upon each of us as individuals to make a difference.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Read more about my nonfiction writing here.