Public schools

That 'Did the Holocaust Happen?' Middle School Essay Exercise Turned Out Even Worse Than Thought

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Still inappropriate!
Credit: Eric Constantineau

It can be hard to keep up with the outrage du jour, so folks may have already forgotten about the awkward, poorly conceived writing exercise developed by educators for the Rialto Unified School District in Rialto, California. The district decided to have eighth-grade students practice their written debate skills last May by giving them a couple of documents to read and then asking them whether the Holocaust actually happened.

A public relations disaster then obviously occurred, and after briefly defending the exercise, the district decided not to repeat it. The school district also said that it didn't find any essays where students argued that the Holocaust was a fraud, which probably came as a relief.

But it turns out the claim wasn't true. The Sun of San Bernardino got their hands on student essays and found dozens of them had argued that the Holocaust didn't happen. Reporter Beau Yarbrough exposed the truth over the weekend:

Rialto Unified School District administrators, besieged by criticism after the assignment became public in May, claimed at the time that none of the students who completed the assignment questioned or denied the Holocaust, but a survey of the students' work by this news organization found numerous examples of students expressing doubt or flatly denying that the Holocaust occurred.

"I believe the event was fake, according to source 2 the event was exhaggerated," one student wrote. (Students' and teachers' original spelling and grammar are retained throughout this story.) "I felt that was strong enogh evidence to persuade me the event was a hoax."

In some cases, students earned high marks and praise for arguing the Holocaust never occurred, with teachers praising their well-reasoned arguments:

"you did well using the evidence to support your claim," the above student's teacher wrote on his assignment.

The student received a grade of 23 points out of 30, with points marked off for not addressing counterclaims, capitalization and punctuation errors.

Back in May, I criticized the exercise not so much for the content but for the limited information provided to the students and the district's decision to use such a heavily one-sided argument to try to teach debate skills (as well as giving the exercise to eighth-graders, who are arguably too young to be debating this topic). It turned out the limited information was a bigger factor than I thought. The assignment sheet told students that they could search for other sources of information to bolster their case as long as they documented them. That does not appear to be how the exercise played out in class, according to The Sun:

Students completed the assignment in class, with no access to a computer or the library to debunk the claims made by the ["Holocaust is a hoax"] site. Such debunking is easily achieved with Internet access

Yarbrough goes on to explain exactly what evidence from the Holocaust debunkers has itself been debunked.

The district is refusing to identify who was responsible for putting the assignment together or whether there will be any repercussions for them.