School Climate & Safety

Attacks Alter Instructional Landscape

By David J. Hoff & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 26, 2001 10 min read
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In a suburban Chicago middle school, a 7th grader ran into his 1st period class declaring that World War III had begun.

In San Antonio, high school teachers rushed to turn on television sets in their classrooms soon after their principal alerted them at a faculty meeting that planes had hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

And in Palm Beach, Fla., a teacher turned to the Internet for maps of the Middle East, information on terrorism, and the latest news footage.

The terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon had an immediate impact on what teachers do in their classrooms—and the effects will likely be felt throughout the rest of the school year and perhaps for years to come.

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Because of television, the Internet, handheld computer devices, and cellphones, teachers and students alike became witnesses to history. Textbooks, carefully planned activities, and even years of teaching experience seemed inadequate tools for dealing with events of such immediacy and magnitude.

Sept. 11, and the reactions from classrooms around the country, became a profound illustration of how teachers have in many ways become moderators rather than dispensers of knowledge in an age in which vast and instant access to information has put so much learning directly into the hands of students.

Many teachers say the still-unfolding events have again made clear that the content of the curriculum and how it is taught cannot be stationary. At any moment, they say, they must be prepared to put aside their notes to take up more urgent matters.

“They’re either one step ahead of me, or I’m one step ahead of them,” Lisa Jacobson, a second-year social studies teacher at Golf Middle School in Morton Grove, Ill., said of her students. She said she knew nothing about the attacks before a student came in with the somewhat inaccurate news of a building being bombed in New York.

“It makes me more a facilitator than a teacher,” she said.

“In the past, when you talked about something with students, they would accept it,” said James H. Long, a government teacher at Oliver Wendell Holmes High School in San Antonio. “Now, there’s more questioning because they have more information about things than we do.”

But this month’s events, by thrusting defense and foreign-policy issues onto center stage in a way rarely seen in recent years, will also become grist for scholars and curriculum experts. Their views, too, will some day help shape what is taught about the United States, its role in the world, and the successes and failures of its policies.

And that could mean a renewed debate over history and social studies instruction as intense as the continuing disputes over the teaching of reading and math.

“We have had history written by a generation of scholars angry about the war in Vietnam and America’s role in the world, and the textbooks have shown a bias toward pacifism,” argued Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Long term, there is going to be a very serious reconsideration of the kind of history that has come into schools over the last generation.”

Teaching or Therapy?

The attacks in New York and just outside Washington—besides being formative events for today’s young people as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the Watergate investigation were for older Americans—could bring lasting consequences that schools’ curricula will reflect.

But with the events still vivid and the outcome unknown, scholars and educators offer mixed opinions on how teachers should address the topic in the short term and over the long haul.

So far, teachers have been able to tell their students what they know about the news. They have also been able to help students evaluate the credibility of what they see on TV or read on the Internet and in newspapers and magazines.

But teacher-educators say that few teachers have the knowledge to lead a deeper study of the complex religious, economic, and political factors that are entangled with the events of Sept. 11 and are contributing to the United States’ reaction to them.

And some experts say teachers are ill-prepared to raise tough questions about the nation’s role in world events.

“A lot of therapy is going to be happening, but not a lot of teaching,” predicted John Marciano, a retired professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland who has studied the treatment of the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf in school curricula.

“I’ve worked with more than 6,000 students over the years, and very few of those people could carry on a serious discussion on the issues of American foreign policy and terrorism and the imminence of war,” he said. “If the past is any guide to the present ... I don’t think they will include thoughtful discussion of the context in which this situation emerged.”

In the long term, this month’s attacks and their diplomatic and military ramifications could alter classroom discussions of U.S. and world history, world cultures and religions, citizenship, and even geography. The new century may dictate that teachers become familiar with farther-flung regions such as Central Asia that have rarely drawn Americans’ attention.

“There is going to be a shift in the way we think about the world,” said Lynn E. Nielsen, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa and a former social studies teacher.

Where teachers turn for guidance on how to teach about Islam, the Middle East, and Asia, and the nation’s own experiences with war and conflict could set the tone for such lessons.

Supporters of a curriculum shaped by multiculturalism have been successful in influencing the content of textbooks, said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the New York City-based American Textbook Council, which monitors history and social studies textbooks. But they tend, Mr. Sewall believes, to promote overly critical views of U.S. history.

“There’s been a lot of anti-Americanism in peace education and global education and world history over the past 20 years,” he said. “That might reverse itself very fast.”

Quick Changes

While teachers rely on newspapers, television news, and the Internet today, they will likely have more traditional curriculum materials within a year to help them put Sept. 11, 2001, in context.

Publishers are scrambling to revise textbooks for U.S. and world history, economics, geography, government, and civics, even as they are deep into the production process on the newest generation of history and social studies products.

With states adopting textbooks every six or seven years, many will be insisting on the most current information possible, according to David D. Anderson, the managing director of curriculum for the Texas Education Agency and a former publishing executive.

“I can’t imagine there is a social studies book that wouldn’t have some content affected by what happened,” he said.

Executives at the McGraw-Hill Cos., for example, are editing several sections of their elementary and high school textbooks to incorporate the terrorist acts and their implications.

The changes are complicated by the timing of the events. The New York City-based publisher and its competitors are entering the final stages of production on their latest social studies series in preparation for upcoming state adoptions—the first of which is in Texas, the second-largest textbook market in the country.

Development of the textbooks has been under way for more than a year, and the publishers are expected to submit their products to the Texas state school board in early February. Now, writers are being asked to go back into the texts and retool sections on government, economics, citizenship, and the 21st century, all of which will also be reviewed by a child psychologist, according to Roger R. Rogalin, the president of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, which has produced some of the best-selling texts in those subjects.

“It will not be easy, but we will hold the presses and get the update in there,” said Mr. Rogalin, who recalled that the last time such revisions were made as print deadlines approached was in 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington state.

In the meantime, the publisher should have current information and resources for teachers on its Web site as early as this week, he said.

What may help publishers out are Texas education officials’ plans to ask the state board to extend the deadline for submissions.

Media Savants

None of those resources was available earlier this month as Ms. Jacobson prepared for her day at Golf Middle School, unaware of the events occurring in New York and just across the Potomac River from Washington.

As her first-period class began at about 8:30 a.m. CDT, a 7th grader rushed into her room blurting out: “It’s World War III. They just bombed a building in New York.”

Because the boy is prone to telling tall tales, the teacher said, his classmates dismissed what he was saying. But within minutes, the school’s principal confirmed the essence of the story.

The school called an assembly so the principal could explain what was happening in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in western Pennsylvania, where one of the day’s four hijacked airliners crashed into a rural area.

During class periods, Ms. Jacobson turned a radio on for much of the day and encouraged students to search for news on the Internet. She also played the role of a facilitator.

Later in the week, she asked students to write about the events, comparing them with other attacks against the United States or predicting how they would change their lives.

The ability to be flexible, teachers say, is vital in times when historic events become part of classroom learning.

“Over the years, what’s happened is there’s so much information that comes so quickly, the job of the teacher ends up being contextual,” said Mark D. Rogers, the International Baccalaureate program coordinator at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., not far from the Pentagon.

Mr. Rogers and other teachers said their students heard from a widely circulated e- mail that Nostradamus, the 16th-century astrologer, had predicted attacks on New York, a claim debunked by a biographer.

Teachers have to let students discuss such apocryphal stories, Mr. Rogers advised, but they also have to encourage students to consider whether the claims are credible.

Sleepwalking vs. Tuning In

The presence of televisions and the Internet in classrooms ensured the events of Sept. 11 hit the nation’s classrooms with an impact greater than that of most other historical moments, according to veteran teachers. The 1986 explosion of the Challenger was perhaps the first time American students watched a disaster unfold live on television.

When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, many of today’s teachers first heard about it over their elementary schools’ PA systems. They recall hearing little more than that the president had been shot. Some schools closed, but others continued with their routines. Few discussed the day’s events and the impact they would have on students’ lives.

“Everybody sleepwalked through the rest of the day,” said Steven Goldberg, 50, now a philosophy and history teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill. “There wasn’t a television. I don’t even remember a radio being on.”

By contrast, Mr. Goldberg wheeled a television into his classroom on Sept. 11 immediately after he found out about the morning’s events. He let his second-period class watch with the sound turned down while he summarized for them what he knew.

As the week went on, he encouraged students to seek more information, suggesting they buy international newspapers at a local newsstand and search for others on the Web.

Throughout his teaching—whether in philosophy lessons on the theory of evil or history lessons about the Jewish Diaspora—he’s been trying to discuss the impact of the recent attacks.

“I’m not trying to address this systematically at the moment,” he said, “but I am looking for unforced opportunities. I am going to address these things very carefully.”

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