Author Liza Wiemer visited the classroom of Westerville North High School English teacher Aaron Taylor and his student teacher, Kalina Kozlowski, on Monday for a discussion about her book, “The Assignment.” Students recently read the book as part of their Contemporary Literature class or Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course.
The young adult novel tells the story of two students who take a stand after their class is assigned to debate the Final Solution, the code name used in the Nazi plan for the genocide of Jewish people. As school officials address the teens’ refusal to participate in the debate, the student body, their parents and the larger community are forced to face the issue as well. The award-winning novel, which is being made into a film, is based on actual events and students.
During her visit, Wiemer discussed some of the book’s biggest lessons, including the power of one’s voice and the importance of standing up for what is right.
“They should never be silent if they see an injustice,” said Wiemer, who is based in Milwaukee, WI. “They’ve got to find a way to find allies and to speak up and not allow it to continue.”
While the book encourages students to think about social responsibility in their own lives, it also connects the Holocaust to society today. It ties into the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942, where German officials discussed and coordinated the systematic, deliberate, physical annihilation of 11 million European Jews.
Taylor, who is part of a Holocaust education task force in his synagogue, first learned about the novel in the summer when it was listed among books that help educators teach the Holocaust accurately.
“A number of students heading into the book really had no background knowledge of the Holocaust which to me is shocking,” he said. “If we’re not covering one of the largest genocides in the last 100 years, what other genocides are we not talking about? It’s that (saying), ‘If we don’t learn history, we’re doomed to repeat it.’”
Taylor also wanted to show how a story they are unfamiliar with draws connections to familiar ones of being a refugee or immigrant coming to the United States.
“To show that common story of humanity is part of the reason why I wanted to bring it into my classes,” he said.
He introduced the novel to his Advanced Placement English Language and Composition classes in the fall while Kozlowski taught it to Contemporary Literature students this winter. Students explored the novel with multiple writing assignments. In the Contemporary Literature class, students created inspirational posters, much like the characters in the book did to protest the assignment. Students also reflected on what they learned from the book and how they could apply it to their own lives.
Wiemer’s class presentation, which she has given to schools across the world, served as the culminating activity for students.
During her visit, Wiemer shared how she first learned of the actual events behind “The Assignment,” how she met one of the students, and how the story connects with what’s happening in social media today.
“Our students need to recognize and feel empowered that they have an obligation to speak up,” she said. “The hate that we are seeing online — it’s chilling. And if you don’t call them out or hold them accountable, it gets twisted and just accepted in our society.”
Award-winning author Liza Wiemer recently recorded a TEDx Talk at the University of Madison in Wisconsin that covers many of the topics she shared during her visit to Westerville North High School. Watch it here.