Op-Ed: A New York City Social Studies Teacher on Teaching 9/11

September 08, 2011 at 6:00 am

Angela Sheldon taking a needed respite from teaching. Sheldon is one of many educators concerned with how to teach the events of 9/11 in a constructive way. Photo courtesy of Angela Sheldon.

Angela Sheldon has been a teacher for 13 years. She has taught history and social studies at Brooklyn Technical High School and St. Ann’s School among others. She is about to start her first year at Hunter College High School in Manhattan teaching Social Studies.

With school beginning just four days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking about how best to teach this important and tragic event. My students this year are either in the seventh or 10th grade, and in 2001 they were between the ages of 2 and 6.It just so happens that my own children are those ages right now — Owen is 4 and Lucy is 6. I cannot imagine having to explain to them what terrorism is and why anyone would fly a plane, let alone two, into buildings. Further, I don’t know what I would say to them about why some people lived while others died, and how I would put any of these events into a context of political history that they might understand.

I believe the best approach is to teach them, not about the event itself or consequences, but how such an event plays a role in shaping their worldview.

How would I explain to them the fear that gripped virtually everyone I know in New York as they tried to go about their daily lives, or the grief I personally felt that America hastily entered two wars that we have not yet exited? I have trouble getting them to understand the plot of a “Scooby-Doo” episode, let alone discussing the geopolitics that might have contributed to this horrendous act of terrorism.

For the 10th anniversary the media has landed on the question: How has American life changed since 9/11? This is an unsatisfactory approach, to my mind. It assumes too much about American life before the event and is too narrow in scope.

I taught history from 2001 until 2005, and again last year, and there is a certain fatigue on this topic among most students, with the caveat that for those who lost someone — I have taught at least five students in that time who lost a father or uncle — discussing 9/11 is traumatic. The other issue that has come up for me when teaching 9/11 is that my Muslim students have experienced the last decade in a very different light. Often they have expressed fear and anger that they are targeted because of their race, religion and dress.

For most of their lives, the children in seventh and 10th grade have been inundated with images and oversimplified explanations about the event and they sadly believe themselves to be experts on the topic. Are they familiar with some basic facts about 9/11? Sure. Do they all know something of Al-Qaeda? Yes. And could every one of them pick Osama Bin Laden out of a lineup? Definitely.

When thinking about how to teach 9/11 on the 10th anniversary, I believe the best approach is to teach them, not about the event itself or consequences, but how such an event plays a role in shaping their worldview. We talk in History about the generation of the Great War, or children of the Depression or the Baby Boomers and I think getting these students to think about the potential long-term impact of 9/11 on their thinking is the most important lesson I can teach them.

How are you a creature of the age in which you live? (Or are you one of the rare individuals that has risen above the ides of the time?)

As always when I prepare a lesson, I start with an essential question as a framework. I recently read a quotation by Voltaire that has inspired my question: “Every man is the creature of the age in which he lives; very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the times.”

Obviously, the question that comes out of this quotation is going to be more sophisticated for the 10th grade than what I will use with the seventh, but I think I can use Voltaire’s statement as a prompt and then ask them: “How are you a creature of the age in which you live? (Or are you one of the rare individuals that has risen above the ides of the time?)”

The World Trade Center site on 9/11. Angela Sheldon believes the best part of teaching the event is helping kids to understand the world around them. Flickr/mashleymorgan.

Below the essential question I will list a few significant events that have had a hand in shaping their decade and change on the planet. The list will include the obvious ones — 9/11, global warming, American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession — and then I let them brainstorm others.

Children will often amaze you with their insights, and I don’t want to prescribe for them what events have shaped their worldview. Once we have what we feel is a complete list, I will let them each rank for themselves the importance of the events that have shaped their worldview and then we will discuss the results as a class.

In particular I will ask the students to discuss the top three events on their list and what impact they believe those events/issues have had on their thinking.

I guarantee you there will be some contrarians in the class — there always are and I love that — who will argue that they have risen above the ideas of the time and I will let them make their case.

The best part of teaching, even about such a terrible event, is having a hand in helping kids to understand the world around them.