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Sinister Salute

Posted on: May 15th, 2019 by Bri DeRosa

Image: Erik Drost [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Students at a Tennessee elementary school recently got a big lesson in history class, but it may not have been the one that their teachers intended.

As part of a “Living History” unit, fifth-graders were assigned to research and act out the roles of various historical figures. During the lessons, one student was asked to portray Adolf Hitler, and the children were taught how to give the Nazi salute (also known as the “Sieg Heil” salute). One fifth-grader was upset by the use of the gesture and stood up to classmates and teachers, but other kids continued to use the salute even outside of the living history classes. The student who asked others to stop was sent to the principal’s office for being “disrespectful” in class.

While the school did eventually respond to concern about the incidents with a statement that they would be ending the use of the Sieg Heil salute as part of the living history unit, and had intervened with the fifth graders to explain that use of the gesture is offensive, some parents are still questioning why the children were encouraged to use it in the first place. Others wonder why a student was deemed “disrespectful” for insisting that classmates stop using a gesture with such an emotionally charged history. What does your family think about the situation?

Talk about this incident with these conversation starters for tweens and teens:

  • The school has said that the use of the Sieg Heil salute was used because it was part of an accurate portrayal of living history. Do you think it’s acceptable to ask elementary school students to act out roles like Hitler and other infamous real-life villains as part of their studies?
  • History and literature are full of words, images and gestures that are reflective of particular times, places and attitudes we don’t share today. Think of books that use racial slurs as part of historically appropriate dialogue, or flags and symbols that represent ideas that have been deemed harmful. Is it ever okay to use and share those words or images? Can using them and teaching about them ever be educational?
  • The Sieg Heil salute is a recognizable gesture connected to oppression and genocide. Do you think the student was wrong for standing up to her classmates and teachers and asking them to stop using it? Why do you think the school said she was disrespectful for doing so? If you think she was disrespectful, do you believe that it is ever okay to risk behaving “badly” in order to stand up against what you feel is not right?
  • If you were going to design a “Living History” event to teach students about this period of history, can you think of positive role models they might portray instead? What people, images and texts would you choose as part of your history unit?
  • Have you ever been put in a position where you were asked by teachers or classmates to do something that you felt was wrong, even though everyone else seemed okay with it? What was it, and how did you respond? Do you have any regrets about the situation, or feel differently about it now than you did then?