School Climate & Safety

Educators Split Over What To Teach Come Sept. 11

By David J. Hoff — September 04, 2002 7 min read
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Teach and talk about the wrenching but historic day—or ignore it. Teachers throughout the country face that dilemma as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks approaches.

“Many teachers are not doing much,” said Susan A. Adler, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “One teacher told me he doesn’t want to dredge up all the agony.”

But others say that the media attention devoted to next week’s anniversary and the time set aside to memorialize what happened mean the occasion cannot and should not be ignored in schools. It’s imperative, those educators say, that they give students a safe place to discuss the dramatic events and learn more about the reasons for—and continuing impact of—the attacks that left more than 3,000 people dead and prompted an American-led war against terrorism.

“To ignore the situation is taking away from the kids,” said Whitney M. Finn, who teaches American history at Bedford Middle School in Westport, Conn. “They need to learn how to deal with those emotions just as adults do.”

Still others intend to stick to the prescribed curriculum not so much to spare their students, but because of the pressure to cover the ever-expanding subject matter.

“As many different teachers as there are, there’s going to be just as many responses,” said Russell A. Phipps, the high school social studies specialist for the 161,000-student Fairfax County public schools in Washington’s Virginia suburbs.

No matter how teachers respond this month, all agree that the deadliest assault on U.S. soil in history will ultimately change the way they teach such topics as World War II, world religions, and just about any other subject that arises in social studies classrooms.

Place in History

In his 10th grade world history class, Trevor W. Gardner always starts the school year by posing the question: Why study history?

With the Sept. 11 anniversary near the opening of school, the terrorist attacks will provide the perfect example of the importance of studying the past, said the teacher at Thurgood Marshall High School in San Francisco.

“The events of September 11 are important for kids because they need to realize that they’re part of history being made,” Mr. Gardner said.

In the wake of the attacks, Mr. Gardner will tell his students, the United States has experienced a growth in patriotism and significant changes in Middle East policy. More importantly, the students’ own lives have changed in small and large ways since Arab terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with hijacked airliners one year ago. Another hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

The lessons, Mr. Gardner said, will help students make the “connections between themselves and the decisions they’re making and how [the attacks] affect people in the rest of the world.”

An examination of the events also gives students the opportunity to work as historians, said Michael M. Yell, a social studies teacher at Hudson Middle School in Wisconsin.

He is preparing a lesson plan for Wednesday of next week in which students will read through historical documents from Sept. 11, 2001— newspapers accounts, President Bush’s remarks, reactions from other countries’ leaders—and be asked to consider what happened and why.

“I want them to dig into those documents and think about them,” said Mr. Yell, who teaches in the town of Hudson on the western edge of Wisconsin, east of St. Paul, Minn. “Last year, they were ready and willing [to talk about the events]. It will be the same this year.”

A Safe Place

But other teachers have no plans to address the anniversary.

At H. Byron Masterson Elementary School in Kennett, Mo., the K-2 students will gather around the flagpole—a special place for their regular morning assembly, said Darlene V. Robertson, a 1st grade teacher. Everyone will be asked to wear red, white, and blue to mark the patriotic day. The pupils will recite the Pledge of Allegiance, as usual, and sing the national anthem, and that will be the extent of the commemoration.

“We’re going to go back to our classroom and do our daily work,” said Ms. Robertson. “I would hope that most schools with young children would handle it that way.”

For that age group, she added, parents will be the best people to help children learn about the attacks and deal with the emotions the terrorism engendered.

At Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., the school community will hold a major assembly—just as it did one year ago when President Bush was visiting to announce a new reading program and airplanes struck the World Trade Center.

In addition to the assembly, teachers will discuss the meaning of last year’s events with their students, said Gwendolyn Tosé-Rigell, the K-5 school’s principal.

Teachers will explore “how can we take what we know about the past and how can that make us better as we move toward the future,” Ms. Tosé-Rigell said.

But many teachers may prefer to let the day pass without making a big deal out of it.

“A lot of teachers almost would like to ignore it,” said Jerald L. Newberry, the executive director of the National Education Association’s Health Information Network, a project that helps the union’s members deal with students’ health needs. “What they don’t want is to have kids inundated with media images and not have a caring adult there to help them process it.”

While Mr. Newberry said many teachers would be wary about discussing the subject next week, the 2.7 million-member NEA has designed a Web site to help those looking for resources plan activities for the week. Other nonprofits and universities are offering resources for teachers.

So fresh are the wounds from that day, in fact, that the NEA has come under fire, particularly from conservative commentators, for what critics perceive as the union’s sympathetic views toward enemies of the United States.

It’s not surprising, then, that teachers face a difficult balancing act when it comes to discussing Sept. 11, 2001, according to Michael Sandberg, a social studies teacher at Seven Hills School, a private K-8 school in Walnut Creek, Calif.

After what happened last year, school became a place for many students to escape the emotional trauma of the terrorist assault, Mr. Sandberg said. Back then, he discussed the current events only when his middle school students brought them up. The mood this year might lead him to take a similar approach, he said.

But many teachers won’t want to address the anniversary unless the mood of their students demands it, according to Ms. Adler, the former NCSS president.

In addition to the emotional toll the topic may produce, teachers feel pressure to keep up with the curriculum and cover material that may be on state-mandated tests, she said. Teachers may lead discussions about students’ views about the terrorism and its aftermath, Ms. Adler said, but most would prefer to stick to their schedules.

Long-Term Impact

While teachers are divided on their approach to the anniversary, one area of agreement is that the events of last year and the ensuing war against terrorism will force significant changes across a wide spectrum of topics in history, civics, religions, even literature.

San Francisco State University this summer held a two-week seminar in which academic experts suggested ways that the Sept. 11 attacks could change the content of instruction. The professors shared their expertise in Middle East history, economics, and international relations.

Throughout the school year, said Mr. Sandberg, who attended the seminar, the attacks could be made relevant to the curriculum. In lessons on the Civil War, for instance, the Seven Hills teacher may encourage students to compare John Brown, the abolitionist who sought to lead a slave rebellion, and the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Lessons about the American Revolution could be a starting point to other discussions, he said.

San Francisco’s Mr. Gardner plans to ask his students to compare how their lives have changed since last Sept. 11 with how lifestyles changed in the years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

What’s essential in the short term, said Ms. Finn, is getting through the anniversary. Several students in her suburban Connecticut school had relatives die in the World Trade Center attack, and she and some of her colleagues lost friends in New York.

Ms. Finn said she was working hard to prepare her students to discuss and handle their emotions linked to that day. “It’s going to be a hard day for everyone across the board,” she said.

Only after that’s been accomplished will she turn her attention elsewhere and conceive of ways to incorporate the events of Sept. 11, 2001, into her American history curriculum.

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