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Teachers Look for the Lessons of Sept. 11
David Massey has given his students at Chatsworth High School an unusual weekend homework assignment. Find and tape television footage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and bring it to school for extra credit.
The tapes will form the basis of a lesson Massey is planning for his advanced film and video studies class on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the deadly attack.
"We'll look at the imagery of Sept. 11, how they were broadcast and how they entered the memories of people," said Massey, an Oscar-nominated maker of short films. "There is no video imagery more powerful than 9/11 that the United States has seen. Those planes will be etched in us as long as we live."
Teachers around the country are preparing to replay Sept. 11 next week in many ways. The anniversary has emerged as an occasion for special lessons on history and technology, poetry and psychology, art and architecture, hatred and patriotism.
But many classroom instructors are wary of being drawn into political, emotional and pedagogical debate over how to teach about terror, its causes and aftermath.
Should the subject be avoided or open for discussion among students? Should teachers point the finger at terrorists or preach tolerance? Should they talk about emotion and feelings or history and politics?
"It's not an easy subject, but I don't see how we could avoid it," said Nancy Goldberg, an English teacher at Culver City High School, where one student lost a parent in one of the hijacked planes. "I want to deal with it in a personalized way, but you don't want to get maudlin about it."
Goldberg and colleagues have been passing around short stories and poems that deal with the subject of loss but do not mention the terrorist attacks. They will meet a day or two ahead of time to decide how to approach the subject on Wednesday.
Many teachers across the country, busy with back-to-school duties, have said they haven't had time to complete their anniversary lesson plans.
Others said that strict state guidelines on classroom content—in California as well as other states—leave little time or room to devote to Sept. 11 topics. Other teachers are procrastinating out of distaste for reliving such a tragic day. Still others, worried about parental or student backlash over such a sensitive topic, are consulting colleagues and principals more extensively than ever.
Many teachers plan to keep discussions tightly focused on factual presentations or history. Audrey O'Keefe, an art history teacher at Jordan High School in South-Central Los Angeles, said she plans to discuss the architecture of New York's World Trade Center and the valuable artwork that was lost in the Twin Towers.
She will avoid discussing emotions. "We don't want to drag them through something that they might not be ready to emotionally remember," she said.
Some teachers said they are relying heavily on the Internet for material. With the anniversary approaching, groups including Teachers.net Gazette, the National Education Assn., the Red Cross, the Families and Work Institute, and Teen People magazine have created lesson plans or tips for teachers.
Much attention has been focused on the NEA's suggested curricula for Sept. 11. Among more than 100 lesson plans, which were submitted by teachers, the teachers' union site, http://www.nea.org, features links to pages about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and an essay calling for tolerance. It also includes links to 60 organizations, including the CIA, the American Legion, FOX News, PBS, the White House and the Red Cross.
Some conservatives have been outraged by what they saw as a possible plea for understanding of terrorists. "The NEA, clearly a union out of step with the vast majority of the country's fine teachers, should be roundly condemned for their 'blame America' approach to teaching our children about 911," said Katherine Smith, a Republican candidate for California superintendent of public instruction, in a typical broadside against the NEA Web site.
But Kathleen Lyons, an NEA spokeswoman, said such criticism is inappropriate and misinformed.
"It is designed for you to pick and choose ideas, just as teachers do on a variety of subjects," Lyons said. "If you actually go on the site, you're certainly not left with the impression that we're trying to blame America."
The NEA has stressed that the controversial link was meant to make sure that all Muslims are not smeared.
Beyond ideology, some teachers have said they prefer to focus on emotion, tapping into students' sorrow, fear or anger through poetry, journal entries or plays. Some plan to devote class time to charity work, raising money for victims' families, writing letters or making quilts and art.
Lyn Lathrop, a sixth-grade teacher at St. Lawrence School in Rochester, N.Y., said she would have her students write about what they remember and whether their lives have changed in the past year.
"It won't be graded or corrected," she said. "It will just 'be,' and will record whatever they are feeling and thinking at that time." Lathrop said she would avoid talking about Afghanistan or terrorism. "I have a hard time teaching about Sept. 11 because I do not, cannot, understand the incomprehensible," she said.
Experts disagree over the extent to which classroom discussion should focus on emotional responses. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington research group, compiled a suggested curriculum heavy on civics that rejects advice from "people who would psychologize the topic or whose reverence for tolerance dwarfs their appreciation of other compelling civic values."
In a different vein, Richard Lieberman, a spokesman for the National Assn. of School Psychologists who also heads a suicide prevention program for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said teachers should try to encourage younger students to use artwork or puppets to express their feelings. Older students should be able to watch television coverage of the anniversary and learn lessons of history, politics, war, terrorism—as well as personal loss or fear.
At Sylmar High School, library media teacher Marc McPhee drafted a memo this week outlining Internet and library resources and showing how lessons might fit with California standards in language arts and social sciences.
"I think most of our teachers will find a way to address the subject," McPhee said. "But in the age of the Internet, it will really come from people looking at what other teachers are doing and choosing what works for them individually."
Some students say they understand the need to commemorate the day but don't wish to dwell on the details of the attacks. At Culver City High, the student government will hand out yellow ribbons, and a school club, the Student Intercultural Advisory Committee, will dedicate a new "Peace Garden." Julie Odano, a junior who helped put the garden together, said she sees the day as an opportunity to "focus on people coming together in the future."
"I know my U.S. history teacher is probably going to talk about it, and I understand that," said Odano, 16. "But I hope it's going to be a regular academic day. We've heard so much about 9/11. We have to move on, to talk about peace. We don't want people to relive that day and be upset all over again."
A Culver senior, Jenny Roth, said the student government had discussed how to approach the day. "Pretty much the school vibe was that we, as students, should do something," said Roth, 17. "It was an important date on our lives. At the same time, we don't want to dwell on it, to look at it as a negative event."
Teachers said they want to be scrupulously even-handed in dealing with the event, as a matter of good teaching.
At San Clemente High School, the students of one European history teacher, Kathleen Sigafoos, will analyze newspapers from a day after, a month after and a year after the attacks for a lesson on how perspectives change over time.
Chris Bryant, a teacher at Detroit City High School in Michigan, said teachers should blame terrorist groups, but they should also address America's faults.
"If a student asked me why anyone would attack the U.S., I would tell them that, overseas, we do have an image of being arrogant and ignorant," he said.
"A lot of the time, we are shielded to what many other groups of people think about us," Bryant said.
A San Clemente High teacher, Rickie Lundgren, will have her students write about the heroes of Sept. 11—either someone who died that day or someone whose actions after the event earned that title.
"I'm not trying to just make them feel sad all over again, but I want them to get more personally involved and active in it," Lundgren said. "Students need to get a real sense that the event touched all of us."
They will also discuss world religions and their role in the event, along with people's changed tolerance and perceptions of different cultures.
At Chandler Elementary School in Van Nuys, fifth-grade teacher Robert Garrett gave his 31 students a homework assignment: to write a speech on the meaning of Sept. 11. The author of the strongest submission will be asked to recite it at a school ceremony on Wednesday.
Before the speech, each class will help put together a banner that will extend around the school perimeter. On it, students will write what America means to them.
"I think young people really should just see the good in humanity and see how people were able to pull together," Garrett said. After the attacks, he posted across the top of a classroom bulletin board the slogan, "United We Stand and Divided We Fall."
"It will probably stay like that," Garrett said, "forever."
Times staff writer Claire Luna contributed to this report.