15 years on, teaching about 9/11 still isn’t easy

It’s exactly 15 years later—and the memory is still etched in my brain.

I was standing by my high school locker waiting for the bell to ring for my fourth-period sophomore English class. A classmate walked by and mentioned that a plane had crashed into a building in New York.

I walked into my class. There, I saw my teacher, and dozens of my classmates, huddled and standing around the television.

Plumes of black smoke rose from the twin towers. It didn’t take long for us to understand that we were witness to something terrible—even if we didn’t know exactly what. We watched for another 30 minutes, until our principal ordered our teacher to turn off the TV.

Most of us have similar “where I was when” stories about September 11, 2001. The tragic events of that day have redefined the modern world, changed history and politics, and ignited still-raging debates over national security and the meaning of freedom. How could we possibly forget that moment when everything changed?

But today’s students don’t have those same recollections.

To most of them, 9/11 is a historical event that happened either before they were born or before they were old enough to remember. For educators, trying to teach 9/11 as history presents challenges, especially considering how fresh the events are in so many of our minds.

That reality has prompted important discussions about how to develop curriculum that both honors the memory of those lost and presents students with historical facts about the cause of the tragedy and its geopolitical aftermath.

Honoring the memory, teaching the history
While many states have written and approved lessons about the 9/11 attacks, most do not mandate them. In many cases, teachers are left to develop curricula around the event on their own—and the approaches vary.

“I don’t think there’s a school system that has said ‘We’re going to focus on this,” New Jersey teacher Colleen Tambuscio told USA Today in a recent article. “I think what has happened in New Jersey—we’ve had moments of silence; we’ve had commemorative acts that were important. But now we should be getting into the educational piece, where we’re doing more with the education. That’s the trajectory.”

Tambuscio developed a 9/11 curriculum for her high school that touches on the political and religious causes and influences that surround the tragedy, such as the history of Islamic extremism, privacy debates, economic effects of the attacks, and more.

At the same time, given their age, many students have not talked about the events of 9/11 at home or in elementary or middle school, according to USA Today. To the contrary, for many adults, the emotions are still too raw and the lessons too difficult to discern.

Starting a community dialogue
Given these challenges, how can your schools identify sensitive ways to both remember and teach 9/11?

Asking your community for advice is a good first step.

The lessons and meanings of 9/11 are different for everyone—who they knew, what they do for a living, where they were. Because of this, everyone has different ideas about how to focus curricula around the event.

For some community members, the idea of teaching 9/11 in a historical context raises emotions—and, to some extent, controversy. That’s why engaging them in the planning process is so important.

Of course, the responsibility rests with you and with your staff to actually teach the history.

As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11, let’s think about the important conversations we need to have in our schools, how times have changed since, and identify the best ways to remember and to teach the tragic events of that day.

Author: Todd Kominiak

Todd Kominiak is Managing Editor of TrustED.

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