The 9/11 Curriculum Wars
What should schools be teaching about the war on terror?
Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By BETH HENARY
LAST MONTH, as schools were preparing to open their doors, a heated debate erupted in the media over how students should observe the anniversary of September 11. According to the Washington Times, a lesson plan on the National Education Association's website was urging teachers to use the occasion to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance" so as to avoid "repeating terrible mistakes" like the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Conservatives howled at this "blame America" approach. Though the lesson plan in question was only one of about a hundred posted on the site, columnists across the country seized on the incident to denounce the NEA and opine on properly patriotic ways of marking Year One.
In the Los Angeles Times, for example, Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center offered six suggestions for what to teach on September 11. One was an explicit response to the NEA plan, which Cooper and Brackman said promoted "historical amnesia." "Don't be afraid of the truth about the terrorist war against America," they wrote. "Politically correct euphemisms and evasions shouldn't hide the fingerprints of those responsible."
In the end, the media frenzy appears to have had little effect on the policies adopted by schools. Many chose to give teachers free rein to address the issue as they saw fit. For inspiration, they could look to dozens of new books about the war on terrorism, as well as lesson plans assembled by groups eager to capitalize on a "teachable moment." The Families and Work Institute in New York posted a series of lesson plans entitled "9/11 As History." The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education-reform advocacy group, released "September 11: What Our Children Need to Know," a collection of contributions from such personalities as Lynne Cheney, William J. Bennett, and Richard Rodriguez.
But despite the deluge of readymade materials, districts and teachers decided to rely mainly on their own resourcefulness to address their students' needs.
In the Washington area, where the reconstruction of the Pentagon is nearing completion, most districts called for some observance of the anniversary. Some, like the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, took a centralized approach. In secondary schools a brief statement about the anniversary was to be read over the intercom, followed by a period of silence. Elementary school teachers were to read an age-appropriate statement to their classes. All social studies teachers were to "implement age-appropriate lessons using the events of September 11 to initiate a focus on themes such as democracy, patriotism, world cultures, government, and communities." The district recommended to parents and teachers websites including those of the NEA, the Families and Work Institute, and the Public Broadcasting Service.
Montgomery County, in the Maryland suburbs, took a different tack. Principals were notified that there would be no system-wide requirement for teaching about September 11, though the district social studies office encouraged teachers who chose to discuss the anniversary to talk about facts, not feelings. Social studies curriculum director Martin M. Creel referred instructors to the Avalon Project at Yale, an online compilation of presidential and congressional documents with links to sources like the European Union's statement on September 11.
In nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, principals were urged to read a brief statement supplied by the district about the heroes and victims of September 11 before their daily moment of silence. A news release from the district encouraged principals to "maintain a regular instruction program throughout the rest of the day." One elementary school principal in McLean sent an e-mail advising that there would be no memorials, but that teachers should deal with the subject if it came up. One member of his staff said teachers had "enough on their minds with the beginning of school" and probably weren't preparing any special lesson plan.
But at least one Fairfax County high school opted for a patriotic display: Students and staff were asked to wear red, white, and blue, and the art department planned to make banners that would stretch from the school to a nearby highway. Some teachers also planned to address the anniversary in their classrooms. A literature and composition teacher said her advanced placement composition class would analyze one of President Bush's war speeches from 2001. "This is a great way for my students to look at the elements of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasive speeches," she said. She welcomed the opportunity to discuss persuasion in politics and to bring current events into the classroom without compromising content.