COLUMBIA, South Carolina – For two days recently, a sign on the cafeteria door
at Hammond School read, “Jews and dogs not allowed.”
The sign was part of
the sixth grade’s simulation of 1930s Germany, in which students were divided
into two groups – Nazis and Jews.
The students portraying Nazis spent a
day as a privileged class, sitting in front rows, serving as teachers’ pets and
being told they were smart.
Meanwhile, the students who portrayed Jews
ate in silence in the hallways, sat on the floor in the backs of classrooms and
wore stars pinned to their shirts, said Karen Shull, the sixth-grade English
teacher who created the simulation.
Such simulations are performed in
schools across the country as a way of teaching that prejudice can be casual and
easy to adopt.
While Hammond’s program is highly structured and appears
to generate little criticism, education experts say similar simulations have
gotten out of hand and been harmful to students. They urge schools to
proceed with caution when planning them.
The simulation has brought some
Hammond students to tears as they grow frustrated with their secondclass status,
Shull said. After spending one day in their assigned roles, the students
switched places the next day, allowing everyone a chance to experience both
sides of the history lesson, she explained.
“The students in the first
group were pretty downtrodden,” she said. “Then their talk changed. It’s
very interesting to see how quickly they switch roles. I’ve had several say,
‘I’m so glad I’m German today.’”
Students kept journals about their roles and
how they felt. All 68 students were assigned an essay chronicling their
reactions to the simulation. In addition, a Holocaust survivor and author
from New York was coming to speak to middle and upper school
The whole experience coincided with international Holocaust
Remembrance Day on Thursday and was designed around the book Daniel’s Story by
Carol Matas, Shull said.
THESE FORMS of academic simulations are fairly
common, but education experts warn they must be designed and monitored with
caution. The danger comes when students become too aggressive or students
who already have emotional problems feel bullied, said Nathan Carnes, an
associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of
“Middle school can be an awkward period of time,” Carnes said.
“One must be careful and very scrupulous about these learning experiences. On
the other hand, what we know in education is [that] the highest form of learning
for students is through experience.”
The Holocaust simulation has been
part of the sixth-grade curriculum for four years at Hammond, a private school
in Columbia, South Carolina, where the annual middle school tuition is $13,720.
Parents receive an information paper about the program and sign a permission
slip for their children to participate, Shull said.
So far, no one has
opted out, although a few parents have expressed concerns about it.
Jewish family reluctantly allowed their daughter to participate, but were
pleased enough with the experience that they didn’t hesitate to sign their son’s
permission slip two years later, Shull said.
The school’s student body is
14 percent minority students, according to its website.
Teachers in all
courses prepare lesson plans around the theme, and they spend a lot of time
talking to students about what really happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and
the build-up to World War II. The students face questions such as how one person
can change the world and what it means to have empathy for someone else, Shull
“It really takes a lot of front-end work to prepare for the
mind-set of standing in other people’s shoes and seeing what it really feels
like,” Shull said.
Laura Riley, a middle-school geography teacher at
Hammond, said the students were always in a controlled environment during the
two days of simulation, so students didn’t have down time to pick on each
other. Students are separated at lunch and in locker rooms, which serves
two purposes, Riley said.
“Part of it is, we want them to experience the
inequality, and part of it is, we want to keep them safe,” she
EDUCATIONAL SIMULATIONS came to life in 1967 when Jane Elliott, an
Iowa elementary school teacher, created the famous blue-eyed/browneyed
experiment in which students were separated based on eye color and one set was
told its members were more intelligent. She discovered that the blue-eyed
children who were told they were special began acting as if they were superior
to the browneyed students.
Since then, the simulation has been conducted
in various role-playing formats such as reenacting the slave trade or the
Underground Railroad, said Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty
Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. The Alabamabased organization uses its
tolerance program to help kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers incorporate
equality and justice into their classrooms.
“A lot of educators are wary
of this kind of immersion because it’s not really authentic,” Costello said.
“And if you’re not careful, you can do a lot of damage.”
she was not familiar with Hammond’s program. After listening to a description of
it, Costello said it sounded “well thought-out.”
She encouraged schools
that use similar immersion programs to take time to incorporate modern
discrimination examples, such as today’s US attitudes toward Muslims and
Hispanics, or even girls’ sports.
“Are they equipped to recognize some of
today’s injustices?” she said. “Tie it to contemporary
Riley, who now teaches eighthgrade geography at Hammond, said
the school broadens the lesson by looking at discrimination on a global scale,
such as genocide in Darfur. And the teachers use it to teach basic school-day
thoughtfulness, such as including others at a lunch table.
“It opens the
door for conversations later for the cool girl who has always been treated like
a queen, and now she’s had a day where she’s been mistreated and had to walk a
mile in someone else’s shoes,” she said.