One of his first projects: how textbooks published immediately after 9/11 addressed the topic compared with how Pearl Harbor was described. Time was an obvious factor, he says. Because of the chronological distance from the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Harbor on December 7, 1941, “it was written much more factually—this is what happened on that day,” Stoddard said. By comparison, the tone of the September 11 content “was more emotional and nationalistic,” he says. In subsequent textbook editions, certain discredited elements of the 9/11 narrative had even been dropped—namely, that the U.S. went to war to prevent its enemies from utilizing weapons of mass destruction.
In 2011, Stoddard and Diana Hess (now the dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education) found most states didn’t require 9/11 to be taught as a stand-alone topic. That hasn’t changed much in the ensuing half-decade, Stoddard says. There will always be variations in instruction, even with a more strict mandate for curriculum, Stoddard says.
Those instructional decisions are best when based on “who their students are, what the teachers’ goals are, what they know about how their class fits into the broader curriculum,” Stoddard says. “Those are all things that we want professional teachers to do.”
Here’s one example of that kind of personalized instruction: Jana Joy, a U.S. history teacher at Eula High School near Abilene, Texas, told USA Today she has each of her students choose one victim of September 11 and use that person’s biographical information as a lens:
Using newspaper reports from the aftermath, the students dive deep into the lives of victims in an effort to humanize the events. “It really affects the kids in different ways,” Joy said. “They pick their person off the website and really get to know that person. They find out what they were doing, where they were for the attacks. It puts everything into perspective.”
In Colorado—as in many states—there is no mandate on how 9/11 must be taught, and local districts, schools, and teachers can opt to craft their own approach. That can mean being prepared to navigate some difficult waters—and answer tough questions—as students process their own responses to the often difficult and emotional content. Jake Cousins, an eighth-grade teacher at STRIVE Prep-Sunnyside, a northwest Denver charter school, told Colorado Public Radio about his approach:
“September 11 was really about how do people process loss and how does a traumatic event on a national or global level translate to an individual or to a community? … We spun it into conversations we were having about everything from Medieval Europe, to the Arab Spring and subsequent conflicts that kind of have been a part of our national understanding since then. I think giving students the chance to grapple with these themes is powerful.”
Over 40 states have implemented the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics, which put greater emphasis on developing students’ critical-thinking skills and applying them to a broad range of academic area. That’s brought a shift in the approach to other core subjects. Some states and large districts have drawn on drawing on the College, Career, and Civic Life framework—known as the “C3”—from the National Council for the Social Studies to inform their state standards. In harmony with the Common Core, it emphasizes “using evidence and reasoning to draw conclusions about probable causes and effects, recognizing that these are multiple and complex.”