In Shira Engelhart's 4th grade class in Virginia, students asked why the pilots on the plane didn't just say "no" to the hijackers on 9/11. In his journal, an elementary school student offered a possible explanation that the attacks were perpetrated by German soldiers during the period when there were frequent wars between the U.S. and Germany. When Ms. Engelhart asked her class what happened on 9/11, eight out of 24 of her students knew that something bad occurred but were not sure what, while the rest of her class did not know the day is significant. Some students responded that it was their sibling's or parent's birthday. Elyse Ross, a teacher in New York City, said her school did nothing to commemorate or educate the students about the day. Michael Volodarsky, who worked as a tour guide at the Ground Zero Museum Workshop said he guided a group of fourth graders; about half of the group knew definitively that 9/11 was a terrorist attack that killed thousands of people and the remainder of the group had either vaguely heard of it or did not know of it at all.
The September 11th Education Trust announced the launch of a trial curriculum to be tested this year. The curriculum includes various lesson plans, videos, interactive exercises that includes utilizing Google Earth to locate global terrorism. Relatives of victims provide video testimonials, as do Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The curriculum will be tried in New York City, California, New Jersey, Alabama, Indiana, Illinois and Kansas. The primary purpose of the curriculum is teach about the 9/11 attacks in historical and present day terms. The Trust provides a range of material from enough for a few class sessions to a whole semester's curriculum
However, Ms. Engelhart wonders whether such attention is really so necessary: "The thing about this event is--what's the purpose of teaching it to our children? What do we want them to take out of it? That there are mean people out there who don't like us and who take their anger out the wrong way? It's not a very teachable moral that we need to focus on. I think it's a historical event that changed America and every child should know what happened, but there is no need for 'drilling' it into such young children. I think that would just be drilling negativity and fear into them. We need to figure out a teachable lesson and what our intentions are when teaching about 9/11."
The September 11th Education Trust seeks to channel this historical background into civic activism and a better understanding of what is going on in the world today.
In simplistic (but realistic) terms, 9/11 precipitated what the Bush administration called a "war on terror." But even that phrase has come under scrutiny. How do we-- and should we -- teach middle school students about the horrors of terror when there is no happy ending to provide? Giuliani believes it is important to teach 9/11 in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as Ms. Engelhart puts it: "[9/11 did change] America forever and sparked the war on terror, but that's not something these kids--even middle schoolers--get. They don't know any life other than the last few years. They don't remember TV when the President wasn't talking about this war." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are facts of life that young students are familiar with, without the context of 9/11.
It is fairly obvious that students should be taught about 9/11. But how? Should students from different states be taught the events in different ways? New York City students may react more strongly to images showcasing a changed city skyline. How should students who have never been on a plane be taught about airport security without instilling a fear of flying? At what age should students be taught about it? Should it be through classes, assemblies, moments of silence, or museum visits?
Ms. Ross thinks that there is a general hesitation to teach elementary school students about the topic but "we underestimate our kids' ability to grapple with such difficult topics. Remarkably, kids can understand this stuff, as long as it is presented in an understandable way." Ms Ross suggests pictures book as the best means of teaching young students: "Books with pictures would be great. Kids are used to discussing issues of right and wrong presented in picture books."
Mr. Volodarsky thinks that the key element in educating students about 9/11 needs to be physical, tangible objects. He thinks that 9/11 "possesses an awesome legacy" and that middle school students can absorb "the strong lessons of preservation, community, and hope in the wake of the attacks...9/11 education is a crucial aspect of any successful educational curriculum."
Yet the issue needs to be handled with care, because some students are not able to comprehend the scope of the issue. Ms. Ross says that "in under-resourced communities, most elementary kids haven't left their neighborhood, let alone seen other parts of the world. It is very difficult for these students to understand such a global topic when their perspective is so limited."