Learning to Teach about Sept. 11

Learning to Teach about Sept. 11

Bryant Bull, a teacher at Lee High school, hasn't had trouble providing answers to his students when they ask about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"All the information is out there from different sources. As a teacher, it's my job to sift through it and make sense of it all," Bull said. "As a history teacher most people think of you as teaching things that are thousands of years old. It's important to connect those things with what is happening today."

Bull, along with about 750 middle- and high-school social studies teachers, were given advice on how to connect the history of the past with the history that is being made every day since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. During a Fairfax County Public Schools in-service program last Thursday, the teachers listened while a five-member panel, ranging from college professors to one of their own, presented their views on teaching the events of the last year to students.

The overall message of the panelists was that while the attacks were against America, it is important to include the global causes and effects, to teach civic responsibility, and above all, to do what they do best — teach.

"What we teach about 9/11 has become a vicious battle [among various interest groups]. We have no option. We must teach it for two reasons. True, we are too close to the events to put them in their place in history. But this will shape this generations' world view as they take power. And second, this is our subject. The duty of teaching about 9/11 will not fall to the English, math or science teachers. It happened on our watch," said panelist James Morris, a government teacher at West Springfield High School.

THE PROGRAM began with a presentation from George Mason University's Sept. 11 Digital Archive, which included photographs and the reading aloud of e-mails sent from students and teachers written during or shortly after the attacks took place.

Then each panelist used 10 minutes to explain his or her perspective on how the events could be retold and put into context for the middle- and high-school students.

The panel consisted of Julie Christensen, associate provost for educational programs at GMU; John Rossi, associate professor of teacher education at Virginia Commonwealth University; Sumaiya Hamdani, assistant professor of history at GMU; Charles Haynes, senior scholar, First Amendment Education/Religion Freedom Programs with the First Amendment Center; and Morris.

"The focus today is not on the commemoration of the events of last year," said Sara Shoob, Fairfax County Public Schools middle-school social studies coordinator. "Yes, students do need to remember, but they have to study the history and economics about what happened."

EACH SPEAKER brought their own perceptive to the table with Christensen and Rossi focusing on the importance of incorporating international studies with what happened. While the attacks were carried out against the United States, Christensen said, it is important to teach students they had impact on people all over the world.

"We are interconnected. What happens in Africa and Afghanistan affects us and what happens in the U.S. affects the rest of the world," Rossi said. "As teachers, we can use current international events as opening and closing points in each lesson. International studies does not mean to focus on what is in the news. It means an understanding of what led up to the events in the news."

Hamdani focused on the need for understanding, especially of Muslims.

"I am concerned about the coupling of my religion, Islam, and terrorism. I encourage you to uncouple these two terms. You're talking about apples and oranges," she said.

She went on to point out there have been other political groups that have "hijacked" religion to justify their terrorist actions. She said Islam, by contrast, is a religion, a culture and a civilization and provided examples of each for the teachers.

"LET'S MAKE the anniversary a day of freedom in every school … and let it be a day to take stock … of what it means to be free and a responsible citizens of the United States," Haynes said. "Democratic freedom takes practice."

He said the students need to be reminded that nothing justifies the murder of innocent people, and that the students should be free to express themselves. He said, borrowing from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, that it was important to not let the dead have died in vain and to call for the rebirth of the nation. That rebirth would come from the schools.

"To many students, the attacks are like the sinking of the Titanic, no different than a random iceberg. We can show them it dates back perhaps thousands of years," Morris said. "We have abundant resources. Should we just cruise, download and teach lessons from the Web? No. I suggest we look at chefs. They use cookbooks for inspiration.

Please don't avoid it because of the controversy it may create. The students in our classrooms today are the leaders of tomorrow. … Empower students to make up their own minds."

Patti Coggins, a teacher at Kilmer Middle School, said Morris was her favorite especially since he is a high-school teacher and can relate to what takes pace in the classrooms.

"He's saying don't be afraid," Coggins said. "As a teacher, the only thing I can do is present the information from every perspective and not allow my points of view to influence my students."

She said she has already worked with her students about not "lumping" people together and agreed that students know nothing about geography or global events.

"Everyone had great things to say, especially about civic responsibility," Bull said.