This week's lesson plan: Try to make sense of 9/11

What America's teachers plan to say about the momentous - yet still emotion-drenched - terrorist attacks of 2001

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In Hudson, Wis., Mark Yell will teach Sept. 11 as history. In New York City, Deborah Straughn Moore only wishes she could.

Emotions associated with the day are still too raw for Ms. Moore's students, who watched from the windows of their Brooklyn school as the twin towers fell, before learning of relatives who perished inside.

But 2,000 miles away, Mr. Yell worries the attacks are already fading from his students' thoughts. So on Thursday he'll show a video of the World Trade Center site immediately after the attacks, and he'll read excerpts from a firefighter's account of rescue efforts.

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No matter their distance from ground zero, schools around the country were put in the difficult position of serving as emotional triage units in the weeks after Sept. 11. With the passage of time comes a different but still challenging task: how to recall the painful day and yet also step back to assess its historical significance.

"I think there's a fine line we walk," says Cricket Kidwell, director of curriculum for the Trinity County, Calif., Office of Education, which serves 2,000 rural students near the border with Oregon.

"It's a line between showing an empathic response to students on one hand," she says, "and drawing a larger picture that gets beyond the emotion and gives us an economic and political perspective on the other."

That balancing act is most difficult in schools around New York City and Washington, where hundreds of students were directly affected by the attacks and still grieve for relatives.

Ms. Moore says gaining emotional distance from the event for the sake of level-headed analysis is not an option in her social-studies classroom in Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School.

To mark the first anniversary of the attack, she urged students to put their feelings into creative form in songs, poems, and pictures. This year, she's tacking on some detached discussion along with the remembrance. She asked students to interview family members as eyewitnesses. Then they will discuss the causes and outcomes of Sept. 11.

"Children need to have some kind of connection to it before they can make sense of it all," Moore says. "They get more involved in the discussion when they get into it that way."

Cathartic outpouring will also come first at Bertie Backus Middle School in northeast Washington, which lost a social-studies teacher and a student on the flight that hit the Pentagon.

Students will gather at a memorial on site as the school bell rings periodically throughout the day. Groups will take turns watching a homemade video of students and teachers remembering the two who were killed. Teachers were still planning their lessons right up until the last moment, according to Principal Alfonzo Powell.

The challenge in suburban and rural schools far from those cities is making the event seem real to students who may never have seen a skyscraper or stepped in an elevator. That's the case in Trinity County, where the landscape is marked by a fading timber industry and closed mills.

For the teachers who aim to stir emotions as an attention-getting path to doing historical analysis in class, the question becomes which themes may elicit the most student interest.

Immigration issues strike a chord with California students, says Kidwell, so teachers there will discuss how to manage the influx of foreigners as a way to make 9/11 seem concrete once again. Similarly, communities with military bases may look at overseas deployments as a segue into how the attacks affected Americans' everyday lives. One Kentucky teacher will ask students to compare and contrast 9/11 with Pearl Harbor as historical events.

"The first year [at the anniversary], we tended to look at the World Trade Center and the lives lost and how Americans responded to that," says Jesus Garcia, professor of social studies education at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. "But now that we've distanced ourselves, we're starting to examine why this happened."

Not all teachers, however, aim to focus on the emotions of the day. "They want to move beyond all that raw emotion of last year and two years ago," says Merry Merryfield, professor of social studies education at Ohio State University. "Teachers this year want 9/11 to be more of an academic part of the curriculum."

Bringing 9/11 from the realm of painful personal memory to that of an academic topic, however, requires a trip through uncharted - and potentially turbulent - waters. Many spent the summer preparing for it.

Teachers must tackle the topic with students they just met at the start of a new year, often without any knowledge of which one of them might have watched a friend or a relative leave to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, or felt the brunt of bias directed at Muslims.

Broader reflection may include calmly considering whether hate, prejudice, or fear might have been, and might continue to be, motivating the US response, according to Professor Merryfield.

Some Ohio teachers are even planning to encourage students to do a classroom analysis of how the government should respond and then write letters to newspaper editors and to Congress.

Yet, for all the circumspection this year, emotions surrounding the events of Sept. 11 seem certain never to disappear entirely, which means teachers will always have them as a pedagogical resource.

"It sounds a bit simplistic, but Sept. 11 is a look at good and ... evil," Yell says. "Here they were, these firefighters, going as high up as they could in that building. For students, it's a character lesson. They need to wonder how there could be such a heroic response to such an evil act."

History textbooks cope with still-unfolding events

Textbook publishers face a daunting task in writing about 9/11 for posterity. That may explain why major publishers are taking different approaches to analyzing what happened, and why.

In "The War on Terrorism" - first published as a supplement and later included as a separate chapter in "The Americans" and "Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction" - McDougal Littell takes a cautious approach. The chapter for middle and high school students steers clear of suggesting what motivated the perpetrators or the US response. "The goal ... is the destruction of what they consider the forces of evil," it asserts.

By contrast, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill's "The American Vision" offers more explanation in its seven succinct pages. It begins by saying oil discoveries in the Middle East dating to the 1920s brought more contact with the West and great wealth to only a select few in the Arab world, "but most of the people remained poor."

"As Western ideas spread through the region, many Muslims - followers of the region's dominant religion - feared that their traditional values and beliefs were being weakened. New movements arose calling for a strict interpretation of the Quran ... and a return to traditional Muslim religious laws. These Muslim movements wanted to overthrow pro-Western governments in the Middle East and create a pure Islamic society.... Although the vast majority of Muslims believe terrorism is contrary to their faith, militants began using terrorism to achieve their goals."

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