Teaching Tragedy: 9/11 in the Classroom

The teacher stopped band class, and we were called into the gym for an assembly with the whole sixth grade. Something had happened, the principal evasively announced, before assuring us that school would always be a safe place.

Rumors swarmed in the hallways. A school shooting. A plane crash. A bomb. And then the walk home from the bus stop, into my parents’ bedroom, where the TV was on, and the towers had fallen.

Where were you? It is a memory branded onto the minds of anyone who, on the morning of September 11, 2001, at the dentist’s, on the train, in second-period class, heard and felt that the world had changed. Ten years later, the memory is still there, stilted and spotty, or clear as a nightmare.

In high schools across the country, the focus of the ten-year memorial was on remembering. Teachers began with the exhausted question — What do you remember? — a question that is becoming more and more difficult, as current high school students recall less and less about that day. Someone must fill in where memory fails, and schools are beginning to face that challenge.

Remembering the disremembered
Neeltje Henneman, Head of the Upper School at the Wheeler School in Providence, oversaw an memorial assembly at the school last Monday. For Henneman, the memories are inescapable. She was a teacher at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn when she watched from her windows as the towers fell. When asked about what she had witnessed, amid shrieks coming from students in the next room, she would insist that only the top third of the towers had been shorn off. The buildings hadn’t fallen. They simply couldn’t have.

For Henneman’s students, ten years and 150 miles removed from the attacks, memories are not as concrete. A student beginning his freshman year would have been only four in 2001. Matt Baum, a history teacher at Wheeler, is beginning his fifth year teaching seniors a course on Contemporary World Issues. Baum introduces the unit on terrorism with a discussion of 9/11, and each year, he notices definite change in his students’ responses. “The first year, they really remembered it to a small degree. Now, they remember adults trying to hide things, like when there’s a death in the family. For the current seniors, it is more myth.”

9/11 in the classroom
Integration of 9/11 into high school education has been slow and varied. Only a handful of states require its inclusion in public school curricula. Private institutions like the Wheeler School have no regulations. Directly following the attacks, however, non-profits and government organizations recognized the importance of such education, and began drafting lesson plans designed to teach the event referred to by one curriculum writer as “the ultimate teachable moment.”

A 2007 study by the National Council for the Social Studies examined textbooks and curriculum materials put out in the four years following the attacks. According to the writers of the study, Diana Hess, associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jeremy Stoddard, assistant professor in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary, “there is an ‘American Tale’ of 9/11 presented in everything we examined— both in what is given attention and what is left out.” Although 9/11 informs the personal backgrounds of current and future students, they will nonetheless lack certain background knowledge. Of the nine textbooks examined, only four mentioned the number of casualties or who was behind the attacks.
“Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy,” one of the curricula included in the study, is developed by the Choices Program at Brown University’s School of Continuing Education. Resource books and online supplements, used in about a third of the country’s schools, provide teachers with case studies, role-playing situations, and critical thinking questions to help students understand terrorism and 9/11. Susan Graseck, program director and a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, sees the resources as a means of teaching through a “civic lens.” Students are given choices, and must decide for themselves what they ultimately believe, mirroring the process of decision-making that determines world events. “It’s a case of having some ownership over what’s happening,” Graseck insists. “History doesn’t happen; it’s made.”

Wayne Chatterton, Chair of the English Department at Westwood Public High School in the suburbs of Boston, twenty miles from where the planes destined for New York and Washington took off from Logan Airport, looks not only at how to teach 9/11, but at what 9/11 can teach his students. Each English class is driven by an “essential question,” and essays and televised talks about 9/11 are used to address questions such as “What is man?” While there is still little young adult fiction deemed appropriate or adequate in its discussion of the events, How They See Us, a book of essays by non-Americans reflecting on their view of post-9/11 America, was introduced into the junior curriculum last year. This attempt to steer away from the ‘American Tale’ identified by Hess and Stoddard elicited a wide range of responses. “Some teachers loved the book,” says Chatterton, “some felt quite uncomfortable; students’ reactions varied, too, from enthusiastic agreement to criticism of the US to vehement anger.” The book’s sometimes scathing critiques of America forced students and teachers alike to re-examine where the country currently stands, both in relation to where it was before 9/11, and to the rest of the world. For some, however, even a decade out is too soon for such self-reflexivity.

As in many schools, 9/11 has no set place in the Wheeler School curriculum, but the event inevitably finds its way into classroom discussions. To help students comprehend the magnitude of historical events, such as Pearl Harbor, Matt Baum introduces comparisons to 9/11. Yet as his students’ personal experience of the attacks decreases, these comparisons will cease to be helpful. For this generation, whose view of 9/11 is caught between personal experience and historical knowledge, there will be no comparison.

New memorials, new memories
Despite blurry memories, students are seeking meaning in the events of 9/11. Sarah Jane Clark, a junior at a public school in Virginia, 100 miles from where American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon, is grateful for the emphasis being placed on the tenth anniversary. “It’s being publicized everywhere and I think it’s great.” While her school has not yet integrated 9/11 into its curriculum, students have stepped up to memorialize an event they barely remember. The ceremony organized by Sarah Jane and other students of school government and the leadership team focused on commemoration rather than memory itself. The local fire department, police, and rescue squad visited the school. Students wearing white ribbons in honor of the victims listened to the school band play the national anthem, and a retired French teacher returned to share the story of his sisters, who worked in the World Trade Center and made it out alive.

The Wheeler School has seen a similar level of student-led responses. For the past few years, students have adorned the playing fields with small American flags as a tribute to the victims. Even as adults struggle to define an educational method of 9/11, kids, though maybe incapable of fully comprehending, understand the events as something significant. As such, they will rise to the responsibility of remembering it. “They’re teenagers,” says Baum, a hint of pride in his voice. “They’re not supposed to be as engaged with the world. But for lack of a better word, it’s cool to be involved.”

The aftermath
In early May, when the news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been captured and killed, the announcement resonated with students far more than their teachers could have expected. “I realized then that this was their generation,” Baum says. “Bin Laden had been a shadow, this evil specter haunting the country as they were growing up. Many do not know the specifics, but they know this person.”

Students joined countless Americans in patriotic celebration, while also grappling with their guilt for rejoicing in someone’s death, and relief over the end of a decade-long search. “Their lives have been informed by the search for Osama bin Laden,” says Henneman. “I had underestimated how important that would be for the kids.”

Wherever it is in America that teenagers go to school, 9/11 and its consequences, most of which are as yet unknown, have and will continue to affect them. In four years, incoming freshmen will not even have been born in 2001. To those who remember, 9/11 is personal experience. Soon, it will become historical event. This change will come earlier to those without direct memory of the attacks, and for many American students, the transition is already underway. Rather than sharing memories of interrupted classes and frightened parents, children will read aloud from textbooks not yet written, and answer multiple-choice questions on terrorism. The lesson plans may engage the students critically, or may be as impersonal as some taught to students on Pearl Harbor or the Cold War — academic detachment, memorized cause and effect.

“Remember 9/11” has been America’s hymn. With 9/11 absent from many students’ personal recollections, it will be up to the schools to maintain the day in children’s awareness, and, in turn, to determine how it will be learned and remembered.

Belle Cushing B’13 remembers.

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