Social Studies

15 Years After 9/11 Attacks, Classroom Approaches to Topic Take Many Forms

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 10, 2016 8 min read
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In the days around September 11, many schools around the country will observe a moment of silence to remember the victims of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took nearly 3,000 lives.

Fifteen years after the attacks, the event sits in a peculiar place in the national memory. Many teachers will likely call to mind vivid firsthand experiences of the day. But K-12 students, most of whom were born in 1999 or later, will likely be recalling descriptions or TV shows or lessons in school: September 11, 2001, is, for them, history.

Fakhra Shah, a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco, was in college when September 11 happened. As a Muslim-American, she said, the experience was formative. “The question was, was I going to be afraid?...I don’t want to have to be buried in this dialogue in which I had to prove my patriotism.”

Now, as her students come to her without direct memories of the event, Shah said teaching about September 11 “is absolutely crucial.”

“They need to be able to think critically about this,” she said of her classes. “It’s a really pivotal moment in our history.”

But in classrooms around the country, teaching about September 11 is neither universal nor uniform. Researchers have noted that classroom materials vary wildly in quality and depth and some history texts barely mention it. More than 20 states specifically require schools to teach about September 11, but some teachers are unsure how to teach about an event whose aftermath is still very much visible and controversial. And some schools still focus mainly on memorializing the event and its victims, while others use it to examine everything from global history to identity to current U.S. politics.

States’ Standards

One year after the attacks, teachers were divided on whether to acknowledge the anniversary at all. Educational organizations, on the other hand, had already begun preparing materials for teachers to use—but they weren’t uncontroversial. The National Education Association, for instance, drew the ire of conservative papers for suggesting that schools investigate American intolerance as they studied September 11. (To find out how teachers approached 9/11 in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath, read my colleague Mark Walsh’s article in the Education and the Media blog.)

Now, 21 states include September 11 in their state standards, and two include terrorism, according to an informal poll conducted by Stephanie Wager, a board member of the National Council for the Social Studies. That’s about the same as in 2011, when Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education, and Jeremy Stoddard, an associate professor of education at the College of William & Mary, found that fewer than half of states’ social studies and history standards mentioned 9/11.

But that number partly reflects states’ approach to standards, not their commitment to teaching about modern history, Stoddard cautioned. Many of the states that don’t specifically include September 11 don’t require all students in the state to learn about any particular event at all—the same standards wouldn’t require a school to mention the Revolutionary War. Some states have standards guided by the C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Framework, developed by states and professional organizations, which focus on critical thinking and inquiry rather than specific content, or leave specific content decisions to local school districts.

Stoddard said the question is less whether September 11 is singled out in standards than whether teachers have the materials and support they need to teach about the event well, and to not fear talking about controversial topics.

“The question is, how can we prepare teachers to thoughtfully engage, and who can help provide materials to do that well?” he said.

Materials Move Online

Stoddard said that many of the best resources are available online, not in textbooks: Online sources are often more up-to-date and thorough than print books, which are updated less regularly. More teachers are relying on the internet for materials anyway, and many textbooks that were in print in 2006 are no longer around.

He said that teachers should be aware that online materials often reflect the priorities of the groups that create them. Brown University’s The Choices program has lessons on civic engagement and public policy; Teaching Tolerance’s materials around the 10th anniversary discuss stereotypes and religious traditions.

In those textbooks that are still around, there has been a shift away from lessons that were purely patriotic or focused on memorializing the event since 2006. Some books have been edited to remove information that has since been discredited. More begin to examine the aftermath of the event, or ask students to exercise critical thinking about concepts like terrorism. At first, for instance, the Patriot Act was usually mentioned, but over time, more textbooks began presenting controversies around the law.

Stoddard said teachers also need to be aware of their own school communities. Do students have parents who are deployed? Have any lost family members in the attacks? That might affect how a teacher approaches a lesson or unit.

There are also geographic differences in how schools deal with September 11, he said. Schools closer to New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, where most victims lost their lives, tend to focus on commemorating victims, while those farther away are more likely to teach about controversies related to the events.

But New Jersey and New York were also connected to the creation of perhaps the most comprehensive set of lessons and teaching guides about September 11, which were created by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.

Another new curriculum: the For Action Initiative, supported by the Families of September 11th, which was created with the Newseum and covers a range of topics, including terrorism, human behavior, civil rights, bullying, and war.

Memorializing or Teaching?

In a survey of about 150 teachers from around the country in 2013 and 2014, Cheryl Lynn Duckworth, a professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found variation in how teachers were approaching the topic. Duckworth used the survey and interviews with the teachers to write Teaching About Terror: 9/11 and Collective Memory in US Classrooms, which explores what students learn and how that might affect their attitudes toward peace and war.

“We need to think collectively about how we tell this story, and how we understand who we are in a post-9/11 world, and what our response to it ultimately should be,” she said.

Duckworth found that more than 60 percent of her respondents did teach about 9/11—but in many cases, they were commemorating the event or acknowledging it rather than teaching about its causes, context, or aftermath.

While some projects stood out—Duckworth mentioned an oral history project in which students interviewed relatives—in many cases, 9/11 is taught in an ahistorical or decontextualized way. “There are some fantastic teachers doing amazing things, but that’s the exception,” she said. “It’s difficult to do anything of substance.”

Duckworth said she was struck by the fact that many teachers felt standardized tests were a barrier to teaching about 9/11 more in-depth.

Other teachers simply felt unprepared to teach about it. “A few teachers told me, look, I’m not an expert on South Asia or the Cold War, or the kinds of things that you really need to put 9/11 in context,” she said.

She said teachers also noted an increase in the bullying of Muslim students after 2001. Some even reported that staff at their schools perpetrated the bullying.

News Media Keep Track

As the 15th anniversary arrived, news media around the country checked in on how schools were approaching the subject.

The Education Writers Association collected reporting from several states. USA Today also reported on classrooms from New Jersey to Tennessee and found teachers were focusing on everything from national security to how music written after 9/11 connected to music written after other traumatic events in history. PBS Newshour published a moving first-person account from an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan who recounted teaching about the attacks in the present day while also remembering the day her school shook as the World Trade Center fell.

The Asbury Park Press reported that some New Jersey teachers are advocating for teaching about the events in a more comprehensive way, using curricula like the National September 11 Memorial & Museum’s. The Philadelphia Inquirer reminded readers that 1 in 5 Americans was born after the attacks on 9/11. In Florida, the Sun-Sentinel found teachers focusing on patriotism.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, Shah’s elective class is specifically focused on identity and social change. On Thursday, Shah set butcher paper out and had students write the initial words, thoughts, feelings, or emotions that came to mind when they thought of September 11. Their responses included “airport security,” “people of all colors dying,” and “the actions of a few affected the many.” The lesson included a poem, a documentary about a Sikh man in America, and personal anecdotes that Shah used to start conversations about how the events of September 11 had affected different Americans’ identities.

But Shah said what struck her was how students made connections to September 11 and how it still resonates in many parts of their lives. “When we teach about it, it causes them to talk about so many different things,” she said.

Photo: Mckenzie Sinchak waits to be handed some red cups from classmate Dewayne Chambers as they and other class members work on the fence at New Bridge Middle School, in Jacksonville, N.C., on Sept. 9. When finished, the cups will spell “We Remember,” in remembrance of the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. --John Althouse/The Jacksonville Daily News via AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.