Nazi role-playing at Santa Monica High School causes stir

Generally, expert advisers counsel against teaching about the Holocaust by having students do exercises that re-create the experience. Role-play activities can reinforce negative views, stereotype group behavior and are pedagogically unsound, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Yet some teachers leading classes on the Shoah have used such techniques, including re-creating the experience of being transported in cattle cars by having students cram into a small space, or holding the better-known “blue eyes-brown eyes” activity, with the teacher giving fewer privileges to the students with brown eyes. 

Two weeks ago, a class at Santa Monica High School was asked to participate in an exercise in which students were instructed to create propaganda posters and campaign speeches on behalf of the Nazis, and to present their material to the class.

“Your job is to get people to join your organization,” the assignment stated.

Shannon Halley-Cox, a ninth-grade social studies teacher, gave the assignment to about 40 students during an April 12 class as part of the freshman seminar standards, which encourages students to “confront the complexities of history” by analyzing such topics as the Holocaust, the American eugenics movement and racial tensions in Los Angeles, according to the Santa Monica High Web site. Santa Monica High School, one of three high schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, has a student population of 3,100 in grades nine through 12. 

This assignment — first reported on, a blog by Luke Ford that focuses on the Los Angeles Jewish community — echoes an incident that had occurred earlier this month at a high school in Albany, N.Y. There, an English teacher instructed students to write essays convincing the Third Reich of their loyalty by arguing why Jews are evil, based on Nazi propaganda.

According to The New York Times, which reported on the incident, the Albany high school teacher is facing disciplinary action. 

The Santa Monica High case prompted the teacher, Halley-Cox, to apologize to Ethan Milius, the parent of a student who complained about the assignment. Milius e-mailed the Journal copies of the assignment and the apology. 

Terry Deloria, assistant superintendent to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, said Halley-Cox’s “assignment specifically prohibited students from using any negative words about those that were persecuted or words that would promote violence or hatred.” Deloria denied that “students [were] asked to act out, role play or simulate being a part of these groups.”

By having students create their own Nazi propaganda, Halley-Cox sought to answer the question of why Germans in the 1930s were either bystanders or sympathizers to Nazi atrocities, the teacher explained in an e-mail exchange with Milius.

“The point of the assignment is to answer the question, ‘How could German citizens sit back and let the Holocaust happen?’ ” Halley-Cox wrote in an e-mail.

Milius’ daughter, Stephanie, is Jewish and a student in the seminar class where the assignment was given. Milius said that he understands the teacher’s intentions, but he does not think the assignment accomplished its stated purpose. 

“What possible lesson does an impressionable 15-year-old derive from pretending to be a Nazi German and telling her fellow students to pretend to have racist beliefs that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews?” he said in an interview with the Journal. “There’s nothing you can learn from that.” 

Next year, students in the school’s freshman seminar class won’t be developing their own propaganda, Deloria says. “Upon reflection, the freshman seminar teacher team feels they can accomplish the same learning outcomes next year by having students view primary sources of historical propaganda,” Deloria said.