Jerry Donald used to observe Sept. 11 by asking his students at Middletown High School to discuss their memories of the event and write them down so they could have a personal account to pass on to their children.
But he has had to move away from that approach over the years.
Today — a decade after the attacks — Donald’s students are too young to remember details of that fateful day. His 10th-graders were in kindergarten on Sept. 11, 2001, and his ninth-graders didn’t even attend school.
So Donald is thinking about adjusting his lessons to provide students with a more factual, historic account of the day.
“Kids who remember the events remember them from a personal perspective — i.e. what they were doing when it happened,” Donald wrote in an email to The Gazette. “We need to help them put it in some sort of historical perspective.”
So he teaches students about events that led to the terrorist attacks — from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen’s fight back, the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Operation Desert Shield and Storm, Osama bin Laden’s reaction to the U.S. presence in the Middle East, and the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and of the USS Cole in 2000.
“Now we are to the point that we probably need to teach it, rather than just ask kids to remember it,” said Donald in his email. “…Now that bin Laden is dead and 10 years have passed, we may be able to move it from teaching it as a sort of a current event to teaching it as history.”
Other teachers face the same issue.
How can they make the event meaningful and engaging for a new generation of students, who unlike their teachers, see the day as a date in a history book, not an event they experienced?
Too new for history, too old for current event
In Frederick and Carroll counties, teachers are left to use their own judgment to determine how to address the topic, what information is appropriate, and what material to use.
Michael Bunitsky, the Frederick County social studies curriculum specialist for secondary education, recognizes the difficulty the issue presents. “This is too recent to be history and too far away to be a current event,” Bunitsky said.
While some like Donald see Sept. 11, 2001, as part of the chronology of history, others see it as an individual event that can help explain other events in history.
For example, Bunitsky said one middle school teacher plans to use the events of Sept. 11 when teaching the Crusades to illustrate the lasting mistrust by some between the east and the west.
Another high school teacher, he said, plans to talk with his student about the attacks, and how heightened national security has affected the constitutional rights of citizens.
Yet another teacher plans to talk to students about the rise of Islamic terrorist groups by teaching the Middle Eastern issues of the 1970s and the Persian Gulf War, and using materials from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, as well as the National Geographic movie “Inside 9-11,” Bunitsky said.
But while approaches vary from one classroom to another, the key point remains the same the further Sept. 11 is removed from students, the more important it is for teachers to show them why those events were important.
Too young to remember
Matthew Gabb, a Middletown High School senior, said teachers and schools could do a better job explaining the context of the Sept. 11 attacks, especially for students who still have a vague recollection of that day’s events.
The 17-year-old, who was in second-grade when the attacks happened, said not many of his teachers have spent time talking about the attacks.
“The best discussion we’ve had about it was actually in physics class,” he said.
It happened three years ago, when Matthew was in ninth grade, and school administrators forgot to mention Sept. 11 on that day’s morning announcements. Upset, Matthew’ physics teacher urged students to start their own discussion of that day’s place in history.
“On that day, it really bothered that teacher,” Matthew said. “So he talked about it. He remembered it better than we did.”
As he enters his last year of high school on the eve of the attacks’ 10th anniversary, Matthew said he hopes teachers will be more open to teaching the context and repercussions of the attacks.
“Right now there is only a small minority of kids who care,” he said. “But we are graduating in June, and we are going to colleges and the military .... We need to learn about it so we can understand it.”
That is why at Mount Airy Middle School seventh-grade teacher Stephanie Wolf works hard to make sure she can convey the meaning and importance of 9/11.
Often she has to explain basic facts about the attacks and answer questions like “Who is Osama bin Laden?”
And she is not surprised. After all, her 12- to 13-year-old students were barely toddlers at the time. “The kids just don’t remember,” said Wolf, who was a senior at Central Michigan University at the time of the attacks.
So every year Wolf uses the anniversary as an opportunity to teach about the event. Teaming up with another teacher, she tackles the event like it is entirely new for students.
She goes over the timeline of the events. She explains in detail what happened in Pennsylvania, New York and Washington, D.C. She shows pictures and gives her students plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
“The class goes very fast,” said Wolf, who’s been teaching the class in this format for four years. And she has found that this way she can get the students engaged without letting the tragedy of the lost lives upset them.
“I’ve never had a child that needed to leave the room,” she said.
Now that time has passed, teachers like Wolf have access to some material that help them teach the events in a balanced and age-appropriate manner. Wolf uses Brain Pop — an animated computer program that has a special lesson dedicated to Sept. 11.
The lesson shows some of the iconic images of the twin towers and helps teachers ensure that students get the facts straight, especially when it comes to explaining the terminology that is normally used in connection to the event.
For example, the program defines “terrorism” and helps teachers clarify that the Islamic terrorists responsible for the attacks do not represent all Muslims, Wolf said.
“We always stress that this was a very small group of people who did this bad thing,” she said.
Addressing Sept. 11 in elementary school is even trickier, said Karen McGaha, the Frederick County social studies curriculum specialist for elementary education.
Frederick County elementary teachers do not have specific lessons on Sept. 11, she said. Fifth-graders were about a year old at the time of the attacks, and they have a limited understanding of the event, she said.
“At elementary level, it’s just a really sensitive subject,” McGaha said.
With this year’s fifth-graders being barely 1 year old when the attacks happened, it is tricky to teach about the attacks without upsetting students.
Yet teachers may still answer questions or encourage students to commemorate the event in their classroom. “Conversations will happen in classrooms across the county,” McGaha said.
Individual elementary also observe the event differently, and this year many plan to address the topic during their morning announcements. At Parkway Elementary, on the other hand, staff, parents and students will gather Sunday to honor the victims of Sept. 11 with a flag-raising ceremony.
For Matt Johnston, a social studies teacher at Frederick High School, conveying that kind of complexity when teaching Sept. 11 is difficult, one of the hardest tasks for teachers who have to tackle the topic.
“In the beginning it was hard because we were so saddened and so many of the students and parents were whipped into frenzy by the 24-hour news cycle,” Johnston wrote in an email to The Gazette.
But teaching the event now is not easy because students are too young to understand how strongly the events affected everyone in the United States, Johnston explained.
“[W]e are trying to show them how important it was in changing our world,” he wrote. “… These kids have grown up in a world of growing Islamophobia … and we still fight that.”
In his class, Johnston tries to do that by trying to get his students to see the events from multiple perspectives.
On one hand, he lets students who knew people who fought in the wars speak up their experiences. But he also tells students about a Pakistani girl he had in his class 10 years ago when the planes hit the towers on Sept. 11.
As a Muslim, the girl was scared that her classmates would blame her for the attacks, Johnston remembers. As he tells her story today, Johnston hopes it can help humanize the issue for his students.