Why 9/11 should be taught more in school

iStock_000020043468XSmallEducators suggest resources for teaching this difficult topic

In the days immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, many teachers dropped their lesson plans to involve students in unfolding events by watching television coverage and engaging in classroom discussion. It was the quintessential “teachable moment” that promised to galvanize student attention and stimulate interest in complex global events.

But, as the U.S. commemorates the 10th anniversary of the attack, social studies researchers say 9/11 is remarkably absent from class curricula. Surprisingly little space is devoted to it in the history and government textbooks that have been published in subsequent years, they write in a recent special 9/11 issue of the journal, The Social Studies.

The reasons many teachers are unwilling to tackle the subject are diverse, say the authors of one article (“Dare We Not Teach 9/11?”): 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.

9/11 should play bigger role in social studies and history

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 will resurrect the subject in many schools and classrooms for a day or a week. But, more is needed, say researchers, to keep the memory alive in this generation. So vividly imprinted are the events of 9/11 in the memories of most adult Americans that it is easy to forget a simple demographic fact: Most students in the classroom today were not born or were not old enough to form their own memories of the event. Today’s juniors and seniors were only 6 or 7 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and their memories are as likely derived from what they’ve seen and heard in the media and at home in the years since the attack as they are to be based on their own direct experiences of that day.

“…Unless we have a plan of action and materials to present that stir ideas and emotions, the memories of 9/11 will continue to fade away along with any feelings we have, morphing into another paragraph or two in a supremely heavy social studies textbook for students and teachers that perfunctorily covers discussions like that of the Battle of Lexington or the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in World War II,” writes Jack Zevin in his article, “Memories Slipping Away: The Tenth Anniversary of 9/11.”

Without a doubt, teaching 9/11 poses many challenges. Educators must be willing to address controversial issues in politics and religion and even examine ambiguities in the language such as the definition of terrorism, researchers write. But 9/11 also presents many opportunities for citizenship education, for developing critical thinking skills, for stimulating high-level dialogue and discussion in the classroom, and for engaging students in complex global subjects by tapping personal connections to this historic event.

“Advocates of meaningful citizenship education have long embraced the view that the heart and nature of social studies include the examination of issues that have broad social impact on America and its position toward the world,” writes Zevin.

Below are some suggested resources and approaches for teaching 9/11 from educators who contributed to The Social Studies July issue.

Suggested Resources:

The September 11th Educational Program: A National Interdisciplinary Curriculum. The nonprofit organization representing survivors and families, the September 11th Trust, partnered with Social Studies School Service, an educational materials distributor, and the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College to develop a 7-lesson program on 9/11. The curriculum is based on primary sources such as archival footage and 80 interviews with witnesses, family members of victims, and politicians. The 168-page curriculum includes a DVD with many images and video clips of the events and people of 9/11. The materials focus on civic actions by individual Americans seeking to gain answers and satisfaction from the government on issues related to 9/11.

Curriculum units from Choices for the Twenty-First Century Education Project at Brown University. The project develops curriculum units that put students in the position of decision-makers at an historical turning point or facing a critical current question. Students examine historical, cultural, and political circumstances and take on the roles of those who faced or must now face difficult choices to make decisions. A newly released lesson in which students conduct an interview is called “Oral History and September 11.” Other relevant units include “Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy” and “A Global Controversy: The U.S. Invasion of Iraq.”

Readings from Facing History and Ourselves. The organization Facing History and Ourselves promotes reflection and dialogue about tolerance and justice. It describes its mission as helping communities link the past to moral choices today and helping inspire students to take responsibility for their world. The group has developed a number of brief readings with related questions that are connected to 9/11 http://www.facinghistory.org/node/243 This summer the group offered well-attended workshops titled “How to talk to students about 9/11.” According to the center, there was a reluctance among teachers to talk about the event soon after it happened because the emotions were still too fresh, but as the 10th anniversary approaches, there’s an uptick in teachers’ interest in addressing this difficult topic.

9/11 Day of Service. A joint effort by Scholastic and My Good Deed (www.911dayofservice.org), this project promotes service learning on 9/11 with the goal of remembering the sacrifices made that day. Students are encouraged to volunteer in their communities and to observe the anniversary of 9/11. The web site provides listings of volunteer opportunities by zip code and offers educational materials for teachers.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) revised curriculum standards. Teachers don’t need to teach 9/11 as a self-contained unit. The NCSS’s revised curriculum standards, “National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment” (previously “Expectations in Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies,”) can be used as a guide to incorporate 9/11 into a wide range of social studies classes and related topics. The revised standards focus on 10 themes that categorize knowledge about the human experience. 1) culture, 2) time, continuity and change, 3) people, places and environments, 4) individual development and authority, 5) individuals, groups and institutions, 6) power, authority and governance, 7) production, distribution and consumption, 8) science, technology and society, 9) global connections, and 10) civic ideals and practices.

Books and films

The Forever War, Dexter Filkin. In this memoir, a New York Times reporter writes about his experiences covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a series of vignettes. The book is accessible to students with lower literacy skills, but provides insights into tribal and sectarian violence, the Sunni Awakening and the troop surge, writes Brooklyn teacher Adam Kuthe in “Teaching the War on Terror: Tackling Controversial Issues in a New York city Public High School.”Kuthe also uses the film, Charlie Wilson’s War, a documentary called “9/11” by 2 French filmmakers who focus on a rookie fireman for Ladder 1 FDNY and What We Saw by Dan Rather.

14 Cows for America, Carmen Agra Deedy. Based on a true story and illustrated with large images, the book describes the Maassai people’s empathy for the victims of 9/11 and how they chose to express it by giving their cows. The book, which was on the 2010 Notable Trade Book listing, ends with this thought-provoking quote: “Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. Sid Jacobsen and Ernie Colon. An artist and editor with Marvel Comics teamed up to create a 131-page graphic adaptation of that is based on the “Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.” As well as the many images, the adaptation incorporates graphs and timelines and drawings of the people associated with terrorism and its investigation. Dialog balloons and explanation boxes assist readers in understanding the government report.

9-11, September 11, 2001 (Stories to Remember, Volume 2) Neil Gaiman et al. This graphic book is a collection of stories and illustrations from a diverse array of talented writers and artists from Chaos! Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics. One of the major differences between this volume and the first volume is that the stories in the second volume are a bit more political.

Find other resources on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog The Best Sites To Help Teach 9/11. Larry Ferlazzo’s blog: http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2008/08/13/the-best-sites-to-help-teach-about-911/

“Teaching the War on Terror: Tackling Controversial Issues in a New York city Public High School,” by Adam Kuthe, The Social Studies, 2011, Volume 102, pps. 160-163.

“9/11, Maintaining Relevance for the Classroom Student,” Robert Waterson and Matt Rickey, The Social Studies, 2011, Volume 102, pps. 167-172.

 “Memories Slipping Away: The Tenth Anniversary of 9/11,” Jack Zevin, The Social Studies, 2011, Volume 102, pps. 141-146.

“9/11 in the Curriculum: A Retrospective,” Diana Hess and Jeremy Stoddard, The Social Studies, 2011, Volume 102, pps. 175-179.

“Dare We Not Teach 9/11 Yet Advocate Citizenship Education,” Robert Waterson and Mary Haas, The Social Studies, 2011, Volume 102, pps. 147-152.

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