Teaching 9/11: 'To them, it's history, just like Pearl Harbor'

Deaf school children in Texas use sign language to paint a powerful portrait of what happened on Sept. 11.

Students in this year’s high school freshman class were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001. “To them, it’s history, just like Pearl Harbor,” said Chris Causey, a middle school educator in Robertson County, Tenn. So, as the memories fade, teachers feel challenged to teach 9/11 in some way that is relevant to all ages.

In some schools in New Jersey, third graders learn about the K9 rescue teams while 12th graders discuss methods of prisoner interrogation. In Tennessee, older students at Stratford High School conduct a mock rescue at the World Trade Center; others arrange their desks like the seats of an airplane while Williamson County social studies teacher Kenneth Roeten asks students about their everyday morning routines and compares them to headlines just before the attacks.

“I personally cannot think of any other event in American history that has had more of an impact on how everyday Americans live their life,” Roeten wrote in an email. “It has had a profound impact on my life; therefore, I believe it to be my duty as an educator to never stop teaching the shock, horror, sadness and utter disbelief of that day.”

But how? That's what school systems around the country are wrestling with now.

“I don’t think there’s a school system that has said ‘We’re going to focus on this,'” said Colleen Tambuscio, a teacher at New Milford High School in New Jersey who helped write a 9/11 curriculum through the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in collaboration with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan. “I think what has happened in New Jersey — we’ve had moments of silence; we’ve had commemorative acts that were important. But now we should be getting into the educational piece, where we’re doing more with the education. That’s the trajectory.”

The lessons from the curriculum Tambuscio helped write include political and religious discussions; the history and present state of Islamic extremists; the global impact of the day economically; the ensuing wars; the backlash against Muslims; the change in day-to-day security and privacy implications; the huge personal tragedy; as well as stories of the first responders, extraordinary acts by ordinary citizens and the mission of service many felt afterward.

Teaching about Sept. 11 is not mandated in New Jersey, though there are guidelines. In Tennessee, 9/11 is included in the state’s social studies standards, but how the attacks are taught to students depends on individual teachers. Texas has built into its curriculum — the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills — key topics related to the attacks and their aftermath. Students are required in high school U.S. history classes to be able to describe the country’s involvement in world affairs, including the "war on terror" after the attacks. They must also demonstrate an understanding of the economic impact and the changes in the role of government since the attacks. But it’s up to teachers to determine how they get there. And when.

“It takes a talented teacher who is really dedicated and committed to students to make this work well," Tambuscio said. "This is not a math lesson on percents and we’re going to do it and you’re going to have a test. This requires a different level of treatment.”

Students often haven’t been taught about 9/11 in elementary and middle school and it often isn’t discussed at home, either. “My parents, for example, don’t really want to rehash it,” said Katie Fernandez Blake, a teacher at Bergen County Academies in New Jersey. She began a one-trimester elective course on 9/11 last year. “That was part of the inspiration for even starting it: a lack of emotional desire to talk about it.”

With no other choice, children do their own research, which can lead to misinformation. “If you type 9/11 into Google, a lot of crazy things come up,” said Noah Rauch, director of education programs at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. The students do not necessarily become conspiracy theorists or have malicious intent in their questions. They are curious about what they have read and what happened.

A few years ago, Kathy Menake, a teacher at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, N.J., discussed the possibility of including Sept. 11 with seniors. “It was actually my students who said, ‘Oh we would love that,’” she said. “And they were saying ‘We don’t know much about it and we really want to know more about it.'”

At Eula High School near Abilene, Texas, which has about 100 students, U.S. History teacher Jana Joy has students choose one victim of that day. Using newspaper reports from the aftermath, the students dive deep into the lives of victims in an effort to humanize the events. “It really affects the kids in different ways,” Joy said. “They pick their person off the website and really get to know that person. They find out what they were doing, where they were for the attacks. It puts everything into perspective.”

Kelsey Griley, a second grade teacher in Newark, Ohio, has read a book called “September 11th, 2001: A Simple Account for Children” to her class for four years near or on the anniversary. She said she discusses it with her class just like other holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It’s important moments in history and they’re Americans too. They’re part of that history,” she said.

Cassie Knutson, a teacher in the deaf education program at Madison Middle School in Abilene, has students create a story using the letters of the alphabet to symbolize different themes.  At the same school, orchestra teacher Candi Ice uses music to teach her students how it felt when the planes crashed. Her choices for her students, she said, are powerful pieces that grab attention. She uses music written for major events in history — “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” and “Dies Irae: A Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust,” both composed by Krzysztof Penderecki — and 2003’s Pulitzer Prize for Music winner “On the Transmigration of Souls” by John Adams, composed in honor of the victims of 9/11.

“The songs are very in-your-face,” Ice said. “They’re tough to listen to. One of the things the kids don’t know is what it felt like getting that news. With this, it’s in their faces. They can’t ignore how it’ll make them feel.”

These teachers want their students to know Sept. 11th and all history is about more than a timeline and statistics. "You teach history not to just recite facts, but to give it some kind of meaning," Tambuscio said.

That's why, however they teach 9/11, they try to make students not only understand, but feel it. At Stratford High in Nashville, criminal justice teacher Jon Stephens has his class take part in a mock rescue of an FBI agent named Lenny Hatton, who is trapped in the debris and injured. As they struggle to lift him --- "Are you OK, Lenny?" they yell -- Stephens hopes the lessons he teaches about how and why 9/11 happened resonate in a personal way and the students will link those lessons to their successful rescue of Agent Hatton.

Stephens knows real life does not always have such happy endings. Stephens was an FBI agent at the time of the attack. On his wrist, he wears a small black band with the name of a fellow FBI agent who died rescuing people from the World Trade Center.

The band reads: FBI Special Agent Lenny Hatton. WTC 09.11.2001.

His body was never recovered.

KREM


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