Teaching 9/11

Textbook Tragedy
By THOMAS PAGE MCBEE  |  September 12, 2011


"What do you know about 9/11?"

It was a surprisingly hot summer day, my first week teaching Bay Area high-school students as part of a UC Berkeley enrichment program. The minute I asked the question, the room quieted. Through the open window, I could hear another class outside doing a physics project. My students shuffled their papers and averted their eyes as I scanned the room.

Finally, a few of the braver ones offered a red-white-and-blue, Fox News–style commentary on terrorism. Others dredged up terrifying elementary-school memories: a glimpse of the falling towers, parents shutting off televisions. I tried to rein them in.

"But what do you learn in school?" I asked.

"Nothing," one student answered. Another said, "It was only one paragraph of our textbook. The teacher didn't really talk about it."

I tried to imagine condensing the defining moment of the last 10 years into a paragraph.

For the adults who lived through it, 9/11 was a shocking and deeply disturbing experience, a catalyst for so much of what followed. But for more and more youth, it's a part of history — a series of facts. Without context, its meaning is lost. For teachers, that's a conundrum.

Rhonda Haynes, vice president and editor-in-chief of K-12 social studies at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, says that one paragraph in a textbook is not an uncommon amount of space to see devoted to 9/11.

"What we include in our programs is not up to us. It's driven by curriculum standards," she says. "For instance, in a US History program, it usually spans a full school year — so you cannot dedicate a full section, two to three pages, to an event like this. It's a balancing act."

The textbooks face another challenge: deflecting the charge of controversy. "We're not focusing on emotional representation, we're representing this from a factual basis," Haynes says. "We present that content, that narrative, in a way that just gives them facts."

But that leaves many questions.

"Does teaching 9/11 mean teaching what exactly happened on that day?" asks Meira Levinson, associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Does it mean teaching the historical context that led to it and followed it? Do we teach it in the context of teaching a broader unit about terrorism . . . teaching the political issue, a military issue, an intercultural issue? You know, that's huge. You can't do all of those, right?"


Levinson is concerned about teachers asked to untangle these issues on their own. "Most likely, your curriculum doesn't specify that you're supposed to teach it all. As we all know, the more recent events tend to get pushed to the weeks at the end of the year," she says. "Teachers have some support, but not a lot of support, so we thought that this is a good time to step back and ask those questions."

Levinson says that there are many possible angles from which to teach 9/11 — religious tolerance, cultural literacy, heroism. "No matter what one decides, one should decide from position of reflectiveness and intentionality," she says.

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