Teachers bring 9/11 events to classroom

Nearly 10 years ago, Wilde Lake High School teacher Herb West flipped on the television in his American government class in time for students to see a live image of a plane flying into the side of the World Trade Center. Students screamed and shouted in disbelief as one and then two towers fell.

But on Thursday, West's students — who were second-graders when the terrorist attacks occurred — were remarkably silent as he began to recall the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Although some of the 800,000 schoolchildren in Maryland may feel unconnected from this week's lessons about Sept. 11, many high school seniors remember exactly where they were that day and in the days immediately following the attacks. So teachers like West can challenge their assumptions while also allowing them to retell their stories.

The 10th anniversary presents a challenge to teachers. Textbooks may not include detailed descriptions of such a recent event. And the violent nature of the attacks is difficult to present to young students.

Yet, while there is no single way to mark the anniversary of the attacks, educators say it is important that schools commemorate the events with a lesson or a schoolwide event. Some Maryland schools will have a moment of silence at 9 a.m. Friday; others will let teachers plan their own lessons, taking into account the age of students.

"It is a crucial act that happened in their lifetime and we are dealing with the consequences," said Alan Luxemberg, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Wachman Center, which specializes in providing resources for history teachers. Whether Sept. 11 is in the curriculum or not, he said, it is important to teach students about the day's events.

When West asked his Howard County sociology students about their memories and how the world has changed since that day, students had plenty to say.

Sebastian Antomucci, 17, remembers the joy of an early dismissal from school and then later, seeing his mother holding her hands over her mouth and staring into the television screen. He watched the towers fall over and over again on television in the coming days.

"That image is still stuck in my brain," he said. And so is the nervousness and sadness of the adults around him. Two years later he boarded a plane for Orlando, Fla., and remembers thinking of the twin towers and feeling a little scared.

Jordon Moreno, 18, was living on an Air Force base in Germany in 2001 and remembers frantic activity that he had never seen before. Shortly after the attacks, his school was evacuated and his mother explained that she wouldn't be home a lot in the coming weeks.

Most of Danny Moss' extended family lived in the New York area. "I really didn't understand the magnitude of the event. All night our phones were ringing," the 17-year-old said.

But even those students whose memories were dim could talk eloquently about what had happened in the intervening years: the long lines and pat-downs at airports, the stereotyping of Arab culture and religions, and the loss of certain personal freedoms.

West showed a portion of a PBS documentary during Thursday's hourlong class and emphasized that some Muslims have been treated unfairly.

"Do you think it changed life in America?" he asked the students.

"It changed a lot because people are more paranoid," one student said.

And when the students noted changes in airport security, West asked: "Do you think you should be searched?"

"This is an amazing teaching opportunity," said Melanie Killen, a professor of human development in the College of Education at the University of Maryland,College Park.

She favors a lesson in the facts first because most students — even those who lived through Sept. 11 — don't necessarily have a command of the timeline of events, who made the attack and what America's response was. Teachers might also want to have a time for students to share stories and reflect on what the event meant to the nation.

"You have to focus on the larger issues of justice and fairness," she said.

Few textbooks have much information about the attacks, said Peggy Altoff, an educational consultant and former Baltimore teacher. Many school systems may not have had the money to purchase textbooks recently, she said, and even new textbooks are unlikely to cover the subject thoroughly enough to do a long lesson or two. So teachers have had to go to other sources for their information.

The Maryland State Department of Education and a number of school districts, including Howard and Anne Arundel, are providing lessons or links to teachers. The National Council for the Social Studies, of which Altoff is a former president, also has links on its website to material for teachers.

Howard County schools strongly recommend that teachers mark the anniversary and have given out a variety of materials to help them plan. Howard students will be participating in "Change to Remember," by bringing their spare change to donate to a program that puts cobblestones at a 9/11 memorial. And the school system is encouraging parents to participate in a service project on Sunday.

At Hereford High School in Baltimore County, students will observe a 90-second silence Friday, while images of 9/11 are projected on screens in their classrooms. Students also can listen to a talk by a firefighter who was part of the search-and-rescue team inNew York City.

Still, the teaching of 9/11 is a struggle for those trying to sort out what to say to elementary school students who lack even a dim memory to draw on, and might easily be scared by the death toll and other grim facts.

Young children shouldn't be shown violent acts, experts say. "You shouldn't be showing clips of people diving out of buildings to elementary schoolers, and yet they should know that the country was attacked," said Altoff.

Meanwhile, some of the emphasis on teaching students tolerance and stressing multiculturalism has been criticized by conservative groups. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has released 10 essays this week that highlight "the danger of slighting history and patriotism in the rush to teach children about tolerance and multiculturalism."

But Luxemberg said that no matter what the political leaning, everyone agrees that the event can be taught as an act of evil.


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