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Teaching a tragedy: Sept. 11 in schools

"Remember to Change" and "Change to Remember" might sound like vague catchphrases, but they have a serious, specific purpose. Both are new initiatives implemented by Howard County schools this year to honor the victims of Sept. 11.

As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, teachers are preparing lessons and the central office has issued recommendations to schools and staff to commemorate the occasion.

Guidelines were sent out to every elementary, middle and high school in the county, outlining what is being done in remembrance of 9/11.

Change to Remember is a fundraising campaign in which schools collect spare change from students and staff to buy a commemorative brick, engraved with the school's name, to be placed in the walkway of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The program is optional for schools, said Mark Stout, curriculum coordinator of advanced programs and secondary social studies.

Remember to Change is a service project based on the national Sept. 11 Day of Service and Remembrance Program. Students and their families may choose to participate by performing good deeds, supporting charitable causes, volunteering or engaging in other acts of kindness and compassion.

As part of the anniversary, schools will observe a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 9, and American flag stickers will be distributed to staff and students to wear.

The day will be commemorated in the classroom as well, at least in higher grades.

The terrorist attacks are already included in textbooks used in American history and government classes in the county starting in the ninth grade, Stout said.

"Objectives in our curriculum address general issues of terrorism and global issues of terrorism, like events like 9/11," Stout said. "It's a part of what we teach in a number of different places."

In elementary school, addressing the subject is dicier. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, are not included in the state-mandated elementary curriculum, said Kim Loisel, coordinator of elementary social studies. Guidelines have been provided to teachers who wish to discuss the occasion with their students.

"(Elementary students) do know it's a special day," Loisel said. "After the moment of silence, they'll ask 'Why are we being quiet?'

"It's a part of history, and we're not trying to sweep it under the rug with the little guys, so we'll try to respond to their questions in an appropriate way … Age appropriateness and prior knowledge of students must be taken into consideration by teachers who are deciding to what degree they will address the anniversary of 9/11."

Sensitivity is key

The most important thing to remember when presenting 9/11 to students of any age, Stout and Loisel agreed, is sensitivity.

"Because of where we live, we're aware of how students are affected," Stout said. "They have parents who work in the Pentagon, parents in New York. We have to be really sensitive. We try to let our teachers know students are a captive audience, and controversial issues must be taught appropriately."

Age-appropriateness is stressed at all levels, Stout said, and teachers are strongly encouraged to limit the use of graphic or violent images in the classroom.

Christine Aragon, a ninth- and 10th-grade American history and government teacher at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City, said she'll use before and after images of Ground Zero and the Pentagon, but that's it.

Aragon said she usually teaches 9/11 toward the end of the school year, in late May or early June. Because history is taught chronologically, students are embroiled in the aftermath of the Civil War this early in the year. However, Aragon said, she will use class time on Friday, Sept. 9 to discuss Sept. 11.

The lessons every year begin simply, Aragon said. Rather than telling her students about 9/11, she has them tell her what they know – or think they know.

"They have a lot of misconceptions," she said. "They don't recall it, they don't remember it, and there's a jumble of all sorts of things. Then, I start to clarify."

Ninth-graders were barely kindergartners in 2001 and may have had no indication the world around them was changing, Aragon said. Often they confuse Sept. 11 with the war in Iraq, thinking the two are the same, or think former President George Bush was somehow involved "in a negative way," Aragon said.

The most common issue that needs clarification, Aragon said, is the misconception that the terrorist attacks were Islamic attacks, rather than the actions of individual extremists.

"That's something that I make very clear to the students," said Aragon, who was 19 on 9/11. "It was a few people, rather than an entire religion. Others think Islam is a country, rather than a religion. We use other historical examples, other incidents where we could have blamed religion. Even (then-President) Bush came out and tried to make it very clear that we were not to perceive it as a religious attack."

Aragon has been teaching American history and government classes for five years, she said, and has seen the number of misconceptions surrounding 9/11 decrease in that time. The further removed the students become each year actually helps Aragon in her work; the less they know, the easier they are to teach.

"My first year teaching, the kids had seen the videos, the pictures, and kids today have not," she said. "There were more misconceptions then.

"My thought is that they know less now, and they don't have a framework. It's not how I would have thought events would have played out. … It's something to be expected, though, that students will continue to know less and less about it as the years go on, and we're going to have more and more reasons to devote curriculum to it the longer we're away from 9/11."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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