Public school (illustrative)
Public school (illustrative)iStock

A middle school teacher in Connecticut was reportedly suspended following a lesson on the Holocaust in which they asked students to draw a swastika in their notebooks, list positive things Adolf Hitler did for Germany and comment on a baby photo of the Nazi leader that the teacher described as “cute.”

Adolf Hitler as a baby Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

And this week, a private middle school outside Atlanta faced criticism after asking students to rate Hitler “as a Solution Seeker” and “as an Ethical Decision Maker.”

The incidents are the latest in a string of grade-school lessons on the Holocaust that have invited students to evince sympathy for the Nazis, and come as the Israel-Hamas war has prompted concerns of rising antisemitism at K-12 schools nationwide.

The teacher at the public Middlesex Middle School in Darien, Connecticut, identified only as a “veteran” social studies teacher, did not make any comments supporting Hitler or Nazism during the lesson last week, beyond the content of the assignment. But students in the class still felt uncomfortable as a result of the lesson, according to local reports.

“Maintaining a safe school environment free from antisemitism and other forms of hate is our top priority in the Darien Public Schools,” superintendent Alan Addley wrote in an email to parents last week, reprinted by local news sites.

Addley did not share anything further about what he described as the “middle school lesson on the Holocaust,” details of which originally came from anonymous sources quoted in the Connecticut Examiner. He did say that “the allegations are serious” and that the district would be investigating.

Requests for comment to the heads of the local Jewish federation and Jewish Community Relations Council of Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien, in Connecticut, were not immediately returned. Addley also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the same region, a swastika was recently found carved into a Darien train station bathroom stall and multiple swastikas were found painted in a Stamford, Connecticut high school.

“I wish to affirm the commitment of the board and the superintendent to assuring that our students and staff can learn and teach in a school environment in which they may feel safe, secure and free from antisemitism and any other forms of hate,” Jill McCammon, chair of Darien’s board of education, told the Darien Times in a statement.

Diane Sloyer, CEO of the federation, told the Darien Times that parents were “shocked” by the allegations.

“If this teacher did, in fact, do what has been said, I think anybody who understands history would find it appalling and call for (their) immediate dismissal from the school system,” Sloyer told the paper. “So we’re watching closely, and I am confident that Darien schools will do the right thing.”

Meanwhile at the Mount Vernon School, a private school in Sandy Springs, Georgia, eighth-graders were given an assignment in which they were asked to rank Hitler’s qualities both “as a Solution Seeker” and “as an Ethical Decision Maker,” according to screenshots of the assignment shared by a local news reporter this week.

In both categories, students were asked to rate the claims on a scale that included “lacks evidence,” “approaching expectations,” “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations,” with a space below the multiple-choice options to explain their answer.

The assignment instructed students to use “the Mount Vernon Mindset Rubric.” According to a 2015 description of the rubric provided by the National Association of Independent Schools, the rubric defines the “Solution Seeker” category as “Formulates meaningful questions; Inquires, evaluates, synthesizes, and discerns cross disciplinary knowledge and perspectives; sets goals, develops a plan of action, and tests solutions.”

The “Ethical Decision Maker” category is defined as “Exhibits integrity, honesty, empathy, fairness, and respect; demonstrates personal, social, and civic responsibility; develops understanding of emerging ethical issues regarding new technologies.”

In a statement, the Atlanta-based Southeast chapter of the Anti-Defamation League commended the school for removing what it called “this misguided lesson.”

“Any assignment that requires considering Hitler or Nazism as a reasonable response, sound leadership, or a clear vision is not just problematic, but inherently dangerous,” ADL Southeast said on social media. “This kind of ‘gotcha’ curriculum asks students to consider genocidal antisemitism as a reasonable goal or outcome for a world leader, without weighing any moral implications. It’s risky & irresponsible pedagogy.”

A request for comment to the Mount Vernon Middle School was not immediately returned. A local TV station reported that some parents expressed “outrage” and believed the assignment was antisemitic. School officials have removed the assignment from the curriculum and said in a statement that they “wholeheartedly denounce” antisemitism, the station reported.

“We do not condone positive labels for Adolf Hitler,” reads the Tuesday statement from Kristy Lundstrom, the head of school. The statement also claims the screenshot was “taken out of context” from a March assignment.

“The intent of the assignment was an exploration of World War II designed to boost student knowledge of factual events and understand the manipulation of fear leveraged by Adolf Hitler in connection to the Treaty of Versailles,” Lundstrom wrote.

Lundstrom added that she met with the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion officer as well as “a concerned rabbi” after learning of the assignment, and alluded to the Israel-Hamas war.

“In this very heavy time, when our Jewish students and families have the added stress of world events, we want to be clear that The Mount Vernon School wholeheartedly denounces antisemitism,” her statement continued.

Some K-12 books on the Holocaust have been the subject of recent culture wars, and of late, some Jews in public education have said they face an especially tense atmosphere. Incidents of antisemitism in schools have reportedly been on the rise since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, including in middle schools: A middle school in Berkeley, California, recently staged a walkout in support of Palestinians that local Jews said left them feeling targeted.

But Holocaust lessons celebrating Hitler and the Nazis were a regular occurrence even before the current war. In 2013, students at a high school in New York were told to “argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!” In 2021, an elementary school in New Jersey faced backlash for an assignment in which a student wrote a positive biography of Hitler and dressed up as him. Later that same year, teachers in Texas were instructed to present “opposing” views on the Holocaust as part of a policy to teach multiple perspectives on “widely debated and currently controversial” topics.

Antisemitism in public schools was also the topic of a recent congressional hearing that featured three district leaders from across the country. At that hearing, Holocaust education was briefly discussed as a possible antidote to antisemitism. Both Connecticut and Georgia, like many states, have Holocaust education mandates but leave specific lesson plans up to individual districts.