Teaching 9/11 to Teenagers Too Young to Remember

Six high schools across the country are debuting a new curriculum in history and social studies classes that incorporate facts and stories of September 11. One of the victim's brothers created the curriculum to honor everyone who died in the attacks.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

VINCENNES, Ind. The students filed into their social studies class just after lunch and slumped into desks where they had learned about the Civil War, Lewis and Clark, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On this day, teacher Michael Hutchison said, the class would feature "another of those huge moments in our history." He reminded the high school juniors and seniors that he would be grading their notes. Then he dimmed the lights and played a video on the classroom TV.

Some students set backpacks on their desks to use as pillows, and others pulled the hoods of their sweat shirts low over their eyes. "Nap time," one of them said. Meanwhile, on the screen at the front of the room, a skyscraper burned. A woman screamed. A tower crumbled. A mother sobbed as she recalled her son's final words.

"There was a fire," one student wrote in his notes.

"People died and went missing," scribbled another.

"It was an example of 'terrorism,' " wrote a third.

Eight years later, this is an example of what Sept. 11, 2001, has become for a generation that's too young to remember much, if anything, about that day: It is an educational DVD, a 167-page textbook, a black binder of class handouts titled "A National Interdisciplinary Curriculum." In Room C215 at Lincoln High School, images of the collapsing Manhattan skyline are now a classroom "warm-up exercise." "Militant," "imploding" and "rubble" are boldfaced vocabulary words for students to memorize. Homework assignments and essay questions ensure that Sept. 11 will indeed be remembered by millions of schoolchildren, if with a new sense of detachment.

From the personal to the preserved -- this is the uncomfortable transition that time requires of all great tragedies. Anthony Gardner, whose brother died on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower, conceived of a Sept. 11 curriculum as a tribute to the victims. He partnered with two professors in Manhattan, who partnered with an education company in San Francisco, which partnered with a cadre of researchers and copy editors, who sent the final product to a handful of test schools nationwide last week.

One copy was mailed to Hutchison, 53, a longtime history teacher in Vincennes who has never visited New York City.

A former Indiana Teacher of the Year, Hutchison had been chosen to help roll out the curriculum because of his reputation for bringing multimedia history lessons to a school edged by cornfields near the Illinois border. On Wednesday, he stared out at 22 students who have lived about half of their lives since the 2001 attacks. What they remember of that day is now scattered snapshots. One remembered his third-grade teacher saying that a plane had crashed. One remembered an administrator locking the front door to the elementary school. Parents hurried into town to stock up on gas. Neighbors hung American flags. A brother talked about being drafted to war.

"You might have been too young to realize it," Hutchison said, "but I knew that we were seeing history made as I was watching on TV."

He distributed a handout that had come with the curriculum, and the students counted the pages in each packet -- "Seven, eight, nine! Seriously?" -- and let out a collective groan. The first two pages contained flight-path diagrams for the four planes that crashed on Sept. 11, followed by a 30-year history of U.S. relations with Afghanistan. Hutchison asked the students to form groups of four and create their own Sept. 11 timelines.

"This is going to take us forever," complained a boy in the back.

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