Teaching Racism and Holocaust awareness effectively

COMMENTARY | Patricia Mulholland, a South Carolina middle school teacher has been placed on administrative leave and charged assault and battery for dragging a student 10 feet under a table. She told him "this is what Nazis do to Jews." The incident was supposed to be part of a social studies lesson, says the Associated Press. Lesson or not, Mulholland's actions were in poor taste and showed flawed judgement.
According to Bluffton Today/WJCL/WTGS, the student, a 7th grader in Mulholland's class at Bluffton Middle School, was sharpening his pencil when she is alleged to have grabbed him. The student's parents have decided to press charges. I think that's a good call. I imagine an experience like that would be alarming for students and embarrassing for the boy. He could have been hurt, too.
I'm concerned about comments made in Mulholland's defense by her lawyer Robert Ferguson. "What was a demonstrative attempt to teach about World War II and the Holocaust has been taken to mean an anti-Semitic rant and it was nothing like that. As a teacher, I can understand Mulholland trying to make history real. I don't believe her "Jew" comment was meant to be a slur, either. However, Mulholland's demonstration went overboard.
I once taught a similar type of lesson. I did not use slurs, nor make an example of anyone, but a few took thought I was commenting against them. Rather than belabor my point, I apologized for any offense. We teachers have to be sensitive to student perceptions of our lessons. This is particularly important when discussing topics that are already touchy, like Holocaust history. We also have to make lessons age-appropriate. What might work in high school, can create misunderstanding in younger grades.
The most egregious violations of teacher protocol were Mulholland's alleged physical actions. Whatever the reason, a 23-year veteran teacher should know that dragging a student may be misconstrued as manhandling. In most districts I've worked teachers aren't even allowed to hug a crying student, let alone lay hands on them roughly, even as a demonstration.
This incident is also a good wake-up call for all us teachers to use common sense and discretion in classroom activities.