September 9, 2011

How do you teach about Sept. 11?

For students today, the emotional resonance of the attacks diminishes as Sept. 11 becomes a day in world history rather than a vivid memory.

By Jason Singer
Assistant City Editor / Online

Ten years after three hijacked airlinersmashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa., the reverberations of those coordinated attacks have infiltrated much of American society in obvious ways. Security is beefed-up at airports, the nation is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Patriot Act has created a new age of surveillance.

The Curriculum Under Construction

More than 60 million children in America are 14 and younger, according to the U.S.  Census bureau. So how do teachers handle the daunting task of trying to explain the significance of 9/11 to students who don't remember when anyone could walk right up to the gate at the airport or when Osama bin Laden wasn't a household name?

Though it has been a decade, just a few states and school districts have a set curriculum for teaching sept. 11. Unlike Pearl Harbor or the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And president John F. Kennedy, the story of 9/11 is still being written as the country continues to grapple with its impact.

New Jersey unveiled its new curriculum this year in honor of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, a lesson plan created by families of sept. 11 victims and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. It provides 56 lessons -- which start simple and grow in complexity and maturity with each grade level -- emphasizing the good that came out of the tragedy for younger students and examining the history of terrorism and other complicated lessons for older students.

The lessons recommend some kind of action, such as creating art about tolerance or service projects to honor or remember victims.

New York City, the nation's largest school district, announced an updated Sept. 11 curriculum this month that includes tips on how to help students cope with learning about the horrors of that day, a study of the art inspired by the terrorist attacks and a history of the building of the 9/11 memorial. The project was done in partnership with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum and a group of new york city educators.

-- The Associated Press

Back to "Remembering 9/11"  special section

What's less clear, however, is how the Sept. 11 attacks have made their way into the classroom.

A decade after the attacks, educators still don't agree on how or what to teach children about Sept. 11, 2001. In Maine and elsewhere, some students first learn about Sept. 11 as part of a "World Religions" class.

Others learn about it as part of their U.S. History curriculum, in sections titled, "Sept. 11 and Its Aftermath," or "The Post-9/11 World." Many students never learn about it at all.

One thing's for sure: For many middle- and high-school students, the Sept. 11 attacks have nowhere near the emotional resonance felt by older generations. They are a historical event, much like the Civil War or the American Revolution.

"The weird thing is, the oldest kid you have would be a 17-year-old in the fall of his or her senior year," said Steve Armstrong, vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies. "Most middle- and high-school students have few -- if any -- memories from that day.

"So it's now becoming a curricular event instead of an emotional one, instead of a vivid memory. And that makes it even more important that we include it in our lesson plans, as fewer and fewer students feel they have a connection to it."

Only about 20 states specifically mention the Sept. 11. attacks in their school standards. Maine is not one of them, although it has provided links on the Maine Department of Education website to Sept. 11 teaching resources.

Some teachers said they only discuss the topic on Sept. 11, and try to have discussions based on students' questions. Others show documentaries and news footage from that day, or try to connect it to other events in American history, such as the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It's definitely a local issue," said David Connerty-Marin, the director of communications for the Maine Department of Education. "These decisions are made on a district-by-district basis."

Students' ages strongly affect the appropriateness of Sept. 11 teaching material. Rob Monson, president of the National Association for Elementary School Principals and an elementary school principal in South Dakota, said elementary students aren't ready for loaded words like "terrorist" or "terrorism."

He encourages elementary teachers to focus on the heroes of Sept. 11 as a way to begin touching on the subject with younger students.

No matter what age, broad discussions are the best way to go, said Sue Blanchette, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, who taught 11th grade American history for many years.

Giving students research topics such as, "How has Sept. 11 affected our daily lives?" or "Are there legitimate comparisons between the Red Scare of the 1950s and the current treatment of Muslims in America?" are a way to get students to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, she said.

Unfortunately, educators said, many teachers stay away from complex topics like these because teachers don't always feel they have all the answers. But Amy Sanders, who teaches a class on the Middle East at Yarmouth High School, said it's not necessary to have all the answers.

"I try to share with them different perspectives, ones they can think about to help them wrestle with the issues on their own," she said. "The Middle East is a very complex region. There aren't always easy answers. I certainly come prepared, but I tell them, 'Let's explore these issues together; let's learn different perspectives,' and I often learn with them.

"In the end, this allows them to think critically and come to their own ideas, and that's what I'm trying to accomplish as a teacher," she said.

Cuts to social studies programs haven't helped efforts to teach students about Sept. 11. From 2001 to 2006, school districts cut social studies by 36 percent nationally, according to a study by the Center on Policy Education. That number has risen to about 50 percent, Blanchette said. Schools only get tested on math and reading, so social studies have taken a back seat on the priority list, she said.

In terms of Sept. 11, this can hurt students' understanding of complex issues associated with the attacks. For example, Armstrong said, if students' lose their world religions class in middle school that teaches the basic principles of Islam, how can they intelligently discuss in high school the difference between al-Qaida's values and what the Quran actually teaches?

"Even with cuts, though, we have to find a way to fit it in," Armstrong said. "Sept. 11 permeates the society, so when they're talking in class about the Bill of Rights in early American history, maybe they talk about the Patriot Act, and how the government can now scan your library cards and emails?

"The effects and consequences of Sept. 11 are all around us. It's something we deal with daily. These are issues that help prepare our students for a global world, so it's important we talk about them as often as possible."

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at:

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