One of the scariest things a teacher can do is to discuss controversial topics with relatively uninformed students, says Matt Rickey, a high school teacher in Kendallville, Indiana.
“Nothing could possibly go wrong,” says Rickey, with more than a hint of sarcasm. In a special 9/11 issue of journal, The Social Studies, Rickey says he is willing to tread the minefield of teaching 9/11 because of his 10-year commitment to teaching students about what happened on that day and its far-reaching repercussions.
“So, why would an otherwise sane teacher take the risk of hurting students, angering parents, or putting administrators in a position of having to defend the teacher in question? The short answer is that this kind of discussion must take place,” he says.
Rickey began teaching a mini-unit on 9/11 in his sociology class shortly after the attack when emotions were still running high. He was unclear what approach to take with his students. But then he discovered a documentary by 2 French filmmakers simply called “9/11” which now culminates his 2-week unit. Students are spellbound by the story of Ladder 1 in New York City, he says.
By then, the students have worked on a timeline of terrorist attacks beginning with the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, they have studied maps of the Middle East and learned the names of the attackers and of U.S. officials. The unit ends with a focus on how Americans overcome adversity (military, volunteerism, fundraisers, concerts, memorials, etc.)
Ten years after the surreal attack on the World Trade Center, social studies researchers say 9/11 is remarkably absent from school curricula. Some of the major reasons teachers steer clear of the topic are fear of controversy, concerns about the complexity of the subject, worries about not having enough time to devote to the subject and still cover all the other required subjects in the curriculum, and lack of confidence in one’s own knowledge to do justice to the subject.
But Rickey and other teachers who are dedicated to teaching 9/11 say schools not only have a responsibility to keep alive the memory of 9/11, but also to take advantage of a rich opportunity to engage students in a meaningful dialogue about global events and to help them become more informed citizens.
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is an opportunity for educators to consider if and how they should bring this difficult topic back into their classrooms.
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