What if we forget? Teaching September 11, 2001, as a history lesson.

Many of my current sophomores were not alive on the day the world stopped turning.

September 11, 2017, marked the sixteen-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most sophomores are fifteen-years-old — these adolescents are the post-911 generation. They know no other reality than the war on terror. And yet, they really know so little about the events of that tragic day.

For example, when asked many of my students did not know:

How many planes were hijacked.

That the Pentagon was attacked.

That a plane went down in that Pennsylvania field.

The difference between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The location of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When and why the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

To combat my sophomore’s ignorance, I gave them an assignment that I have given every year since that infamous date. They were tasked with interviewing their friends and family members concerning the events and lessons of 9–11–2001.

The students interviewed three people who were of various ages on September 11, 2001. The following were the interview questions:

1. Where were you when you heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

2. What do you remember were your feelings and reactions to hearing of the attacks?

3. What was happening in the world, in the nation, and/or in your personal life at the time of the attacks?

4. Who did you think was responsible for the attacks (then)? Were you correct?

5. Why do you think the United States was attacked?

6. How do you think life in general, life for Americans, and your life specifically, has changed since the attacks?

7. What are your feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

8. What would be the lesson you would like children in the future to take away from the attacks of September 11, 2001?

Students then analyzed the three responses to each question and wrote their evaluations based on the following inquiries:

  • How are the responses similar?
  • Were the people you interviewed mostly in agreement, or do they disagree in terms of their feelings and perceptions? Explain how and why.
  • What can you learn about history by completing these interviews?
  • Did the age of the person you interviewed have any impact on the type of responses you received? Why or why not?
  • What do you think these responses tell you about the future of the United States in general, and future United States foreign policy?

The students’ analysis included some remarkable insight into the common person’s psyche and these responses may help all Americans realize that the events of September 11, 2001, were a dynamic turning point — a pivot point into fear, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and protectionism that permeates our political, economic, and social interactions sixteen years later.

The student’s action research yielded quotes from their interviewees like:

“I hyperventilate whenever I see an Arab person on an airplane. I know he’s probably not a bad person, but I can’t stop it even if I wanted to.”

When asked to predict future foreign policy, some students responded with statements about xenophobia:

“After hearing these responses, I think the United States will continue to limit the amount of foreigners in our country”

or

“I think the foreign policy will become air tight, shutting out nearly all foreigners. However this causes problems because not all foreign people are terrorists. In fact many are people trying to escape the horrors they face in their country be coming to the United States.”

Many students commented on how the nation was united after the attacks, stating the common statement:

“ Our country came together after and made us stronger.”

After discussing their interviews, I began to lay down the facts of that day. I showed the students video of Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings. I played them songs by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen. Many students acknowledged that they had not seen the footage of September 11, 2001, before.

By the end of today, I began to wonder if students across our nation — our post-911 generation — are learning about September 11, 2001? Are we collectively forgetting? Are we failing a generation?

But then I drive home. My phone notifies me that I have a Remind App notification — my youngest daughter’s fourth-grade teacher informs the parents that the class learned about 9/11/2001 and made Patriot paper chains. The message is complete with a picture of adorable eight and nine-year-olds holding their paper chains. When I return home, my seventh grade daughter tells me that today was the first year a teacher discussed the events of September 11, 2001. Both of my daughters give me their versions of the classroom discussions.

I am hopeful that maybe we are ready to face our history. Maybe enough time has passed to begin to place the anniversary of September 11, 2001, into our social studies curriculums. I shudder to think about what my grandparents would think about my students not being taught about December 7, 1941. Both my grandfather’s and grandfather-in-laws’ sacrificed for our country and became known as the greatest generation. Furthermore, military service people and their families have been sacrificing for our country since September 11, 2001. Any Social Studies teacher that ignores this anniversary is doing a disservice to those military families, to the people who died on that September day, and to our post-911 generation.

Our students need the details. They need to learn the stories. They must never forget.

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

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I was born on 9/11/2001…

It’s Monday, January 3o, 2017, in America.

I ask the students sitting in front of me if they have any questions about current events. I preface it with my usual ground rules: a) we will be respectful; b) we will try to see many perspectives; c) we do not have to agree with one another, but we do need to speak nicely.

A flurry of hands are raised in this sophomore, accelerated history classroom.

What is an executive order?

Which countries are included in the ban?

How many executive orders can a president use?

Is it a Muslim ban?

What does the actual ban say?

I try to navigate these heavy questions one by one. I give historical perspective. I try to show both sides.

One white male student says: “The ban does not say Muslim.” So we read the full text of the ban. He is correct.

One black female student says: “My parents are from the Caribbean, I only wonder how I would feel if the Dominican Republic was on that list of countries. My family members travel here for holidays and special occasions.”

One female, Muslim student says: “Terrorism is not about one religion.”

Another female, Muslim student raises her hand and with trepidation says:

“I was born on September 11, 2001, in Iraq, at the same time the towers were falling. My parents made sure by birth certificate said September 12. In 2004, we had one day to flee Iraq. We stayed in Syria for two months and then a few months in Jordan — finally settling in Egypt. In Egypt, we fled the violence of the Arab Spring and came to the United States in 2011. My parents have green cards. My mother’s citizenship ceremony is supposed to be next month, but we heard ceremonies are being canceled. My father stood outside our Egyptian apartment complex to protect us in 2011 — now he is telling my brother not to show the Iraqi flag in his car. My mother will not wear her hijab.”

The student is in tears. The room is dead silent.

By the end of the day, I am spent.

I pack up to leave for the day just as a former student enters. He tentatively asks if I have time to chat. Of course, I say yes. He does not know the day I had.

He tells me that he needs to write a letter to President Trump for an assignment.

“What would you like to say?” I ask.

“I am worried about reading my letter aloud to the class. People might call me names,” he replies.

After asking him why he is worried, he confesses that if he was old enough to vote, he would have voted for Trump. He tells me that he has been called a racist, a sexist, and anti-Muslim by his peers. He laments that he feels like he can’t have conversations with most people.

I let him speak his mind to me. I am glad to offer him a safe space. I share with him that I have also been writing — writing about polarization and its impact. I suggest he too writes a letter to President Trump discussing his perceptions.

As I drive home, I marvel at my day. Monday, January 30, 2017, in America.

Teaching Nazis

“As you watch the movie The Twisted Cross, please do not draw swastikas on your desks.”

Every year I have uttered those words in some way. Sometimes the title changes to the NAZI propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. Other times I teach without films, but still, find it necessary to command students to refrain from drawing that symbol. Despite my pleas and regardless of my teaching methods, since 1995 a swastika has been drawn somewhere in my classroom.

Last year a student managed to plant a very poor attempt of a swastika on my wall next to my poster of the presidents of the United States:

I don’t think President Benjamin Harrison was a NAZI!

Why do students draw swastikas? I think they fall into two camps — the curious and the angry.

The Curious

The curious student may simply be a provocative person. He or she might be an adolescent who likes to see how things feel or to push social boundaries. I have had many curious students.

One explanation for the curiosity is the curriculum. Students learn about the holocaust, Hitler, and the world wars many times in their careers, but with very little depth. I remember taking an elective course on World War Two during my junior year of high school and learning names like Himmler and Goering for the first time. I was, of course, intrigued by these new-to-me historical individuals. (The 40-week course has actually proved invaluable to my teaching.) Unfortunately, most courses in the humanities are survey courses. Survey courses are not intended for deep learning about any one topic. So for the most part, adolescents are left with significant holes in their education. They remain curious.

I am not as troubled by the curious. I would like to teach an elective course on the world wars one day, and I am sure that course would also foster clandestine swastikas. I think the power of that symbol will always be enticing.

The Angry

I do not want to profile my students. I am not calling them future fascists. However, I am also a student of human nature. I know that public schools are often microcosms — hatred, intolerance, and ignorance exist in American society and therefore ugliness exists in our schools.

Teaching the Social Studies during the 2016–17 school year has illuminated the ugliness of our society. Our society affects our youth. Their experiences today shape their world view tomorrow.

This year has brought too many subtle examples of intolerance to the surface. I do not want to acknowledge student’s negative comments as normal or acceptable, nor do I want to sensationalize typical developmental issues that arise with teaching adolescents. However, I have witnessed an increase in student appreciation for extreme opinions recently.

For instance, I have been teaching about the world wars this month and I am a bit shocked by a few student’s responses to my lessons. During today’s lesson, I mentioned that the Nazi’s burned the German Reichstag and then blamed the communists. A student yelled out: “There is no proof that the Nazis burned the Reichstag.” I said, yes, in fact there is. (“Historians find ‘proof’ that Nazis burnt Reichstag.”) He could not let it go, he kept saying: “You have no proof.” I tried to explain to him that this was the provocative event that propelled the Nazis, but he seemed to be very bent on proving me wrong. This was the same individual that last week proclaimed that he would have made a good NAZI. (Please see my earlier post: Snowdays are Savage!)

Do I share my evidence? Do I disprove his alternative facts? Do I get in the cage with the angry bear? This student is intelligent and armed with some knowledge — just enough to make him very rigid.

I wonder at how this student has come to his conclusions. Does he read from a variety of sources? Does he watch documentaries? He does not hand in most of his assignments so I can assume he has some time on his hands. What are his conversations like with his family members? Why is he angry? What responsibility do I have in his education?

Ironically I gave my students a reflective assignment today. They need to answer in paragraph form the following questions: Why did Hitler come to power? If you were a German during the interwar period would you have supported him and the NAZI party?

It will be interesting to read my students’ responses. Most of them will be eligible to vote in less than three years.