Education of the 9/11 attacks in D.C.-area public schools is primarily left up to the discretion of teachers, with public school administrations calling for certain activities on the upcoming 10th anniversary but little else
Some teachers are certain to cover it; others don’t at all. Among those who cover it, approaches vary.
Education about the attacks is extremely important, said Lisa Dolan, head of the Pentagon Memorial’s docent program and wife of one of the victims at the Pentagon. “But that’s the problem. It’s not taught. … It depends on your teacher.”
Karen Lee at Thurgood Marshall High School in Washington, D.C., follows the online program Voices for Peace, and ties 9/11 to lessons on tolerance and nonviolence. Other teachers, such as Joe Presley at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, cover 9/11 in light of historical events, tying it to the crusades and current events.
In Maryland, Patuxent Elementary School’s sixth-grade social studies teacher Dorothy Tate not only teaches 9/11 through the context of history, but also incorporates the topic into other subjects, such as science.
“Because we are dealing with natural disasters and terrorism all the time … it’s a way to bring it in with science,” Tate said. “Right now we’re looking at scientific investigations … [such as] what could’ve happened on that day and how the [World Trade Center] came down.”
In addition to teaching 9/11 through science, Tate also has her sixth graders preparing debates on whether wiretapping is legal.
Few official guidelines
While some states have gone as far as adopting standardized curricula, more than half don’t even mention 9/11 in their education standards, according to a new report by Education Week. Maryland and D.C. have 9/11 instruction in their state standards; Virginia doesn’t.
While standards in the District do mention 9/11 in the 10th and 11th grade guidelines, teachers said there often isn’t enough time to cover events so recent in history.
“If we have time, then we can take a day and slow down and recap the events,” said Presley, who teaches government and history. “It’s a zero-sum game. The more we spend on some topics, the less time we have to spend on other topics.”
Virginia’s state education standards do not mention 9/11 at all, although they do call for students to analyze the impact of terrorism in general. How to cover the events of 9/11 specifically is left up to individual teachers, said Wallis Raemer, interim assistant superintendent at Arlington Public Schools.
Presley said he doesn’t understand why it is not part of the set curriculum for D.C. Public Schools. “There’s no rhyme or reason, really. Especially from the central office,” he said.
“There obviously are some political aspects to [9/11 education], some religious aspects to it,” said Dolan. “It’s a hot topic and [districts] don’t want to get involved in it.”
Dolan said the D.C. area should already have something in place to teach 9/11 comprehensively. “It affected our area,” she said. “There should be basic standardized facts and figures when it’s taught. There should be some sort of curriculum out there.”
Other states, including New York, are trying out standardized curricula. The September 11th Education Trust, created by a group of victims’ families and first responders, has published what they say is the first-ever comprehensive 9/11 education program, called “September 11 Education Program: A National Interdisciplinary Curriculum.”
And earlier this summer, New Jersey adopted a statewide curriculum called, “Learning From the Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism, and 9/11 in the Classroom.”
Brian Pick, deputy chief of curriculum and instruction at DC Public Schools, said a standard 9/11 program may be adopted for the district in the future. “It’s on our radar, but we haven’t made any commitments,” he said.
As distant as the Roman Empire
Covering 9/11 can be a challenge for teachers since high school students today were young when the terrorist attacks happened.
“Since [the students] were born [after] the incident, they are just now feeling the effects of 9/11, so it’s important for teachers like us to give them background knowledge,” said Melany Garcia, a fifth-grade teacher at Patuxent Elementary School.
“If they remember it at all, they have these very vague, nebulous remembrances,” Presley, the Banneker High School teacher, said.
It’s also difficult to get many students invested emotionally. “A lot of them feel that … it’s not so different than the fall of the Roman Empire,” Presley said.
Danella Browne, a sixth-grade teacher at Patuxent, makes the connection with her students by focusing on the security and safety aspect of 9/11 and how it changed America.
“I want to liken the scenario to the fact that your parents are here to protect you, but what if you didn’t have that protection, how would you feel?” she said.
Browne also teaches 9/11 to her students through service. Pautuxent’s administration provides support by coordinating community service opportunities, such as sending troops overseas care packages and letters.
She said that this type of community service opportunity “helps the students understand that your freedoms … should not be taken for granted.”
Recognizing the anniversary
But for those students who were touched by the events, however young they were, interest is high. “A lot of them want to know why it happened,” Presley said of his students whose families were affected by the terrorist attacks.
This is why D.C. Public Schools is recognizing the 10th anniversary with a Day of Tolerance per a 2001 resolution by the now-defunct Board of Education requiring D.C. Public Schools to recognize 9/11 each year with lessons on tolerance.
“There’s particular poignancy for some schools here,” Pick said, referring to the group of D.C. teachers, students, and staff who were on American Airlines Flight 77 when it hit the Pentagon. The curriculum office is offering lesson materials around the theme of “tolerance, peace, and hope.”
“[Service] may not be something we think of as a traditional education tool,” Dolan said. But as long as they’re talking about why 9/11 is important, he said, it’s valuable
Because there is no universal endorsement of the need to have a set curriculum for 9/11 throughout all schools in America, teachers have the individual responsibility to make that day relevant to their students’ everyday lives.
“Ten years later, and I don’t know if there will ever be a curriculum that will be standardized to teach our kids about Sept. 11,” Dolan said. “It’s sad. I hope I’m wrong.”
“Even if we finally do have something, there will be a generation of children who will have never learned about it.”