Teaching The Meaning Of 9/11
In Classrooms, Students Learn Not Only What Happened, But Also Why
The class is solemn as the recording plays: Brian Sweeney, a passenger on United Flight 175, leaves a voicemail message for his wife minutes before the plane crashes into the World Trade Center’s south tower.
“Jules, this is Brian. Listen, I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked,” Sweeney said. “If things don’t go well, it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you.”
Many of the students, juniors at Bristol Central High School, don’t remember ever hearing the recording. A decade ago, they were only 6, and their memories of the Sept. 11 attacks — if they have any at all — are muddled.
For some, this recording and others, which they listened to Friday in their U.S. history class, made the attacks more vivid than ever before.
“Actually hearing people’s voices,” said Alex Mandela, a 16-year-old junior, “I was left speechless.”
For students like Alex, the Sept. 11 attacks are a murky blend of personal recollection and history lesson; for younger students who were toddlers at the time or not yet born, they are simply history.
Crafting lessons about the attacks has evolved over the years from the days of dealing with shock and horror to understanding Sept. 11 as a historic turning point. And in teaching about 9/11, teachers also have had to navigate highly charged topics, including religion, politics and patriotism.
Like many students his age, Alex’s memory of the date is more about the change in his normal routine than about the attacks. His mother picked him up from school, which puzzled him, he recalls, because he usually went to day care.
He knew something was up, but he didn’t know what. As he got older, he began to piece it together.
“You know those old stories, about how grandparents talk about, ‘When I was a kid’ — that’s kind of how it feels,” Alex said. “More like a history story than an actual, personal experience.”
In the first few years following 2001, schools addressed the events largely by memorializing them, said UConn Professor Alan Marcus, who studies how to teach controversial issues.
At Glastonbury High School, history teacher Steve Marino recalls that in the school’s current events class, “We were doing therapy with the kids. We were doing therapy with ourselves, like after any traumatic experience. … They were scared and curious.”
But since then, Marino said, the curriculum has evolved to include not only what happened, but why, and the ensuing repercussions, including the Patriot Act, heightened airline security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
UConn’s Marcus said the “biggest dilemma” for many teachers is determining how much to “memorialize” and how much to study and analyze.
“That’s what teachers get hung up on the most,” Marcus said.
“It’s still a very emotionally powerful time,” he said. “You want to respect that, but at the same time, if all you do is remember, if all you do is have a moment of silence or a ceremony honoring those who have died, you’ve really missed an opportunity.”
Larry Covino, social studies coordinator for Bristol Central, said he uses primary sources in his class — like the recording of Brian Sweeney on board Flight 175 — to help students understand how profoundly historic events can affect the individuals involved.
Because the events of Sept. 11 are still comparatively recent, today’s teachers are able to infuse their lessons with their own recollections, but their emotions are often still raw. One of Covino’s colleagues was talking about the attacks with him and started crying.
Students get a better idea of the attacks’ devastation, Covino said, “when they see a teacher getting teary-eyed and crying.”
Getting The Facts Straight
Lea McCabe, a social studies teacher at Bristol Central High School, said some students who don’t remember Sept. 11 but do remember the country going to war in Iraq “have everything mixed up and everything confused. There’s a lot of walking them through.”
Only a few years ago, McCabe said, students understood exactly why their school might have a moment of silence on the anniversary of the attacks.
“Now it’s almost like we have to pre-teach,” McCabe said. “This is what we’re going to do, and here’s why.”
In East Hartford, teachers are trying to make sure every high school and middle school student learns about Sept. 11 in their history and social studies classes during this anniversary, said Edward Quick, head of the high school’s social studies department.
For example, last week in Sara Slogesky’s ninth-grade world history class, students discussed newspaper headlines on the attacks: “Outrage” in the Atlanta Constitution; “Bastards” in the San Francisco Examiner; “Act of War” in The Courant.
The ninth-graders, who were only 4 in 2001, said the headlines helped them understand how traumatic the attacks had been.
Deneiliah Edwards, 14, said she remembers watching the news on television with her mother and sensing that something sad had happened. While she understands a lot more now, and she knows the names Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, she said she’s still not clear on the role each played.
“I don’t really know the difference,” Deneiliah said, but she’s expecting to learn more Monday.
And, like several others in the class, Deneiliah does have a personal connection to the aftermath of Sept. 11: Her cousin is in the Army in Iraq.
What The Future Holds
In Joseph Bernabucci’s civics class at East Hartford High School, he focuses less on the details of the September attacks and more on the issues that the attacks raised.
Students “really need to know what the core issues are that will determine which way we’ll go with this war on terror,” Bernabucci said.
He talks to his class about the terrorists and what their motivations might have been — U.S. wealth, religious differences, oil.
After class, Bernabucci said that patriotic fervor in the years following the attacks made it almost taboo to try to understand the terrorists.
Even now, he said, teaching about Sept. 11 is “kind of nerve-wracking” because “you’re never quite sure if what you’re saying is being interpreted the right way with the kids, especially with the religious issues.”
Closer To Ground Zero
Connecticut has no statewide guidelines or requirements when it comes to teaching about Sept. 11; it’s left to each district to decide what to do.
Mark Linabury, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said this flexibility is appropriate partly because in southwestern Connecticut more families were directly affected by the attacks.
Tom Broderick first started teaching at Scotts Ridge Middle School in Ridgefield three years ago.
He had prepared a lesson for his students for Sept. 11 but just before class started, a colleague told him that one of his students had lost a parent in the attacks.
“It kind of gave me pause, and I questioned what to do,” Broderick said, but he did go ahead with the lesson, which went without a problem.
Since then, though, he has shied away from teaching much about Sept. 11 and instead encourages his students to talk about it at home.
“I like to have parents discuss it with their kids because I don’t know where they are coming from,” Broderick said. “I don’t know if they lost someone, where their emotions are.”
And with Sept. 11 coming only a week or two into the school year, Broderick said, teachers typically don’t really know their students.
“They don’t have the emotional connection yet,” Broderick said, so it’s hard to judge what to say.
At Greenwich High School, Principal Christopher Winters said the topic comes up in the contemporary American history class.
“All of our teachers treat the topic with sensitivity, knowing that it may have affected some of these students’ parents or relatives,” Winters said.
The high school also is planning a schoolwide meeting Monday with bagpipes, taps and a moment of silence.
“I think we are all emotionally scarred by it, and we are all looking for ways to heal,” Winters said, “and to help our youth of today understand something that is becoming a little bit more of a history lesson for them than an actual lived experience.”