Teacher Preparation

9/11 is now a history lesson for most school kids

In a New Jersey school district, the way teachers talk about 9/11 in the classroom is changing

Early morning light hits the smoke and wreckage of the World Trade Center September 13, 2001 in New York City, two days after the twin towers were destroyed when hit by two hijacked passenger jets.

NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, high school social studies teacher and football coach Robert Lake stood outside with students waiting to get picked up from school. One of them — a good kid, member of the football team — asked Lake a question: “Is the whole world going to change now?”

Nearly 15 years later, Lake says he still remembers his response.

“I kind of thought about it, and I said, ‘Probably. I think it already did.’ ”

Lake and his high school students watched the world change that day. They felt it change. But today at North Plainfield High School, located about an hour outside of New York City, few of the students sitting in Lake’s social studies classes have any recollections of the attacks — and many weren’t even born when they took place.

“I think one of the hardest parts of teaching something like that is, because you were there and you saw it happen, you know what it felt like and you know what it was like to see it,” said Neil Thompson, also a social studies teacher at North Plainfield High School. “Trying to convey that to students without getting emotional and affected by it is really difficult.”

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Teaching students about 9/11 is challenging because it’s a complex topic, and many teachers have said they lack the resources, training and time to teach it. While New Jersey does not have state testing in social studies (required state tests focus on reading and math), schools are required to follow a set of social studies education guidelines that include some lessons on contemporary issues, including terrorism. But even then, teachers of traditional U.S. and global history classes are often crunched for time by the end of the school year and struggle to fit in discussions of any events that happened after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

“They don’t have time to teach what they have to teach, so how do you bring up very complicated topics?” asked Donna Gaffney, a trauma specialist and a co-founder of the For Action Initiative, a nonprofit formed in 2007.

Teachers in the North Plainfield School District have been working on ways to solve this dilemma for years. In 2010, the district formed the 9/11 Commemoration Committee to guide the development of classroom lessons across grade levels and subject areas related to 9/11; and the district was among the first to adopt a cross-discipline curriculum, developed by the For Action Initiative, intended to help teachers talk about terrorism and global conflict. Since then, the committee has expanded its scope to help support character education and service-learning projects throughout the district.

North Plainfield School District serves a diverse student body of about 3,200 students, with most coming from middle- and working-class families. Many are the children of recent immigrants, and according to state data about half of the district’s high school students speak a language other than English at home. Teachers describe it as a tight-knit school community that celebrates its diversity and values community service. There wasn’t one specific reason that they became interested in taking up the work on teaching 9/11. Rather, they say, talking to students about 9/11 and, more broadly, topics related to current events and issues that affect the local and global community just fits the district’s civic-oriented mindset.

This year, the district has gone so far as to offer an elective course about 9/11. Jamil Maroun, a former district supervisor for science, social studies and library/media services, partnered with Lake last school year to develop the semester-long class, which examines 9/11 in historical context.

“September 11 was one of those places students and myself would get lost for months,” said Maroun. “There’s so much to unpack, and analyze, and look at. It continues to have repercussions, and it continues to have an effect on the society as a whole, as evidenced by the election today.”

The elective course, which is being offered to juniors and seniors this fall and is being taught by Lake, began with a week-long lesson covering the events that unfolded on Sept. 11, 2001. Lake started the first class by showing students a collection of photographs, live footage and newspaper articles from 9/11.

“Most of our students really have very little knowledge or recollection of it,” Lake said. “Just stories they’ve been told, or things they’ve seen.” By the end of the first week in September, the students had one big question: Why did this happen?

In mid-September, the students will start piecing together the events that led up to 9/11, beginning with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 at the end of World War I. Maroun and Lake decided to start the history there because the terms of the treaty played a big role in laying the groundwork for the contemporary global political climate. Later in the course, the students will study how 9/11 shaped the world they grew up in. For example, they’ll talk about the Patriot Act, changes to airport security and conflicts in the Middle East.

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In addition to working toward developing their own solutions to the challenges of teaching 9/11, teachers in the North Plainfield School District have participated in national efforts to make more resources on this topic available. Last school year, the district piloted a new set of lessons created by the Newseum, a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to news and journalism; the lessons were developed with the support of the For Action Initiative.

Teachers across the country now have access to a bank of free, online lesson plans and teaching guides through the Newseum website. The way those materials were curated is representative of a shift in how the education world is handling 9/11 in the classroom.

Talking about and commemorating 9/11 on the anniversary is no longer enough to help many students understand why this event is such a painful memory for so many people, and why it continues to have a lasting political impact. Someone has to teach them.

“As we were coming up on the fifteenth anniversary, we realized that it’s not a current, contemporary issue as much for students in the classroom as much as it’s a history lesson,” said Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Newseum. “It’s going from the front pages of the newspaper to the history books.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Teacher Preparation.

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