How to teach about Sept. 11

My colleagues and I are working on a story about how Bay Area teachers plan to cover the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. So tell us: What aspects of the event and its ongoing aftermath will — or should — social studies teachers address in their classrooms?

Given the religious and ethnic diversity of California’s classrooms, I wonder how teachers will approach such sensitive topics as the role of religion and international terrorism, if at all, and generally what they will consider as they put together their lesson plans.

How do you make an event — one that’s still so fresh in the minds of many adults — relevant to children who were toddlers or small children when the World Trade Centers collapsed? How much emphasis and time, if any, to you plan to devote to this topic?

The Education Writers Association posted this link to a blog post with curriculum for teachers. Are there other resources you’d recommend?

I’m looking for teachers, parents and students to interview and, possibly, for lessons to observe. If you’re interested — Don’t be shy! — or know someone who might be, send me an email with your contact information so we can talk at greater length about how you and your colleagues plan to approach this important moment in our world’s history.

I encourage you to post your thoughts and ideas here. Want to write a piece for The Education Report about the subject? Please submit it to kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Just remember to include your basic information (name, school, grade, subject, etc.) and, if possible, a photo of yourself. I look forward to hearing from you.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • http://www.geniusinchildren.org Rick Ackerly

    Remembrance of a school principal (me): In the weeks after the event, when the classes talked about it, one second graders said, with some puzzlement on his face: “That plane hit the tower 78 times.”

  • Nextset

    I wonder if 911 will be taught in context with other historical military strikes against empires, or acts of war, or just by itself?

    Then there’s the issue of asymmetrical warfare – of which 911 is the best known example of. There’s material on GlobalGuerrllias.Com discussing this. Good reading but college level.


    911 isn’t just a Pearl Harbor type military action – it’s a more complicated issues of protracted warfare. Maybe readings on the Cold War would help put things in context.

    It will be interesting to see how OUSD approaches such a subject. Will they try to make a social issue of the affair, do a comparison with other historical warfare events, or just teach it in a vacuum – teach that these events occurred, now go to lunch.

  • livegreen

    One of the most important things to mention is that Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions and backgrounds were murdered in those buildings. White, black, latino, asian and arabic. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Legal and illegal.

    In their diversity they were all Americans (or hopeful to be). That is what binds us together and what we should all be proud of. No matter how we approach the issues or what solutions we believe will solve our mutual problems & challenges.

    And the rescuers who came after, who lived or who died trying to rescue those inside, did so regardless of the races and backgrounds of those inside. They died trying to rescue their fellow human beings.

  • Nextset

    Diversity is not what binds us together. Quite the opposite. I’m all for having some of everything – but no nation with fractured morals, language, money and an entitlement mentally is going to be around very long or prosper.

    Do you have any examples of “diverse” nations in history that have matched the accomplishments of the British Empire in it’s prime, the American Empire circa 1950 or even modern Japan and China?

    Diversity in the manner it’s currently being sold is weakness, a tower of babel.

  • Katy Murphy

    Here’s where I’m hoping we stick to the topic at hand: how teachers plan to teach about the Sept. 11 attacks.

  • Catherine

    As a fifth grade teacher the social studies standards include how the creation of what we call America including immigration to this land, the writing of the Bill of Rights, Constitution and the creation of our government and our court system. Around the room are the Bill of Rights one by one.

    I am planning on having giant poster paper at each and having students write what contributed to the attackers being able to have a plane carry out the attack. Then students will write whether they would do away with that law. For example the second amendment says that we have the right to own weapons. Students will decide whether owning weapons contributed to the tragedy of 9-11 and explain on the poster (briefly) and then write their opinion about whether the right should be changed.

    I don’t know the level of ability of my students yet – if the class has good oratory skills, they must prepare for both sides the debate because a flip of a coin will determine whether they debate for or against.

    If the oratory skill is less – we save debate for December or January.

  • Makeitgoaway

    I always show the opening clip from the HBO special In Memorium-( you can see it on YouTube ) after reminding students it is the most likely event for their children to ask them about.
    Their child will point to a photo of planes slamming into the towers in their history books and ask”Mommy where you alive then?”. The fact is that most high school students were 7 or younger when it happened and are not really familiar with the events or the two wars it engendered. I try to put. It in context- the thousand year struggle for control between the Christian and Muslim world, the “reasons” for the attack from BinLaden’s perspective the subsequent controversy over how to honor the victims, the extensive changes brought about by security concerns following the attack and the historical parallels when freedom is threatened, including not just Pearl Harbor, but the Civil War, WWI and WWII. Without fail someone will bring up “hearing” that George Bush engineered the whole thing because they “saw” it on a website, which leads to a good discussion about scholarship and websites. This is the definition of a teachable moment.

  • Jim Mordecai

    I doubt if any textbook deals with 9/11 as it is not part of the California history standards that I found in my search. But, maybe I missed it.

    But, I also miss the point of the Bill of Rights and 9/11. I accepted the idea that America was powerful and before 9/11 I assumed that that power would protect us. Using American planes to attack the USA and kill so many dismissed from me the idea that America’s might could protect America from attack.

    The Bill of Rights are suppose to protect the individual from the power of the American government However, I assume those that sacrificed their lives from Arabian world did so act by crashing planes into American building express their hatred against the power of the American government. I doubt if they gave a thought as to America’s form of government.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Ms. McLaughlin

    I would hope that the elementary schools leave it alone, unless the children have questions. Little kids have no reason to be chewing on such grim events. It’s just not their turn yet.

  • Catherine


    The point is that president Bush was working on suspending many civil liberties because of fear after 9-11. There were important reasons the Bill of Rights was created. The right to carry arms made it possible / easier to slip onto the plane with a gun. Does that mean that we suspend the right to own a gun?

    I am working within the California State Framework which clearly states what students are expected to learn.

    When our country was first formed we built in individual rights because “the state” or England, wanted to hold the power. After 9-11 Bush/Cheney wanted to suspend individual rights “to keep us safe from the bad guys.” Many fifth grade students are savvy enough to understand the slippery slope of taking away individuals’ rights.By requiring that everyone be prepared to debate either side of the argument means the students must practice critical thinking rather that taking the standard multiple choice test on the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

    You’re welcome to come and visit my classroom anytime to understand the depth of thinking and consideration in taking away the rights of all for the actions of few. As teachers we walk this line everyday. The whole class misses a portion of recess or stays after school for the actions of a few. In our school the students used to be able to play extreme frisbee until a couple of knuckleheads intentionally threw the frisbees in the faces of others. Instead of punishing the few, the entire school was banned from bringing frisbees “for their own safety.” Sound familiar?

  • Nextset

    Catherine: It would be interesting to discuss the “rights” in context of the federal and state governments deciding they can eliminate the right of association with enactment of “civil rights” laws that require you to rent to people you don’t want to, hire people you don’t want to, and trade with people you don’t want to.

    We can also discuss abridgement of free speech in government efforts to impose sanction of people for political incorrectness in speech.

    Hopefully you will also teach the difference between government involved “rights” and private actions. For example, airlines are private businesses that have no obligation to permit guns aboard, or to permit speech aboard they disapprove of. Which is why your second amendment point above is so inappropriate with regard to the airlines. 911 occurred because of government open borders policies that allowed enemy aliens into this nation to take flight training among other things. Americans are being robbed, raped, killed and injured all the time by foreign nationals the Government not only invites in and refuses to remove, while forcing “acceptance” by US nationals with anti-discrimination (anti free-association) laws.

    There are lots more issues involving Congressional invasion of the powers reserved to the states. Another time, Perhaps.

  • Nextset

    An afterthought on this 911 subject. Liberals are compelled to indoctrinate because they cannot exist without force. Their entire worldview is based on taking from those who produce, controlling the fruits of other peoples work, and buying power and control through allocation of the fruit of other people’s labor. And imposing their will by control of the courts if not the legislature.

    Public Education as currently featured in California is owned and operated for the most part by liberals. There are reasons this has been allowed to happen but it’s the current reality.

    911 was a very interesting black swan in US history. There are more on the way. It can be used to try to cram more liberal ideology into public school kids, which is about what you’d expect from urban public schools. It can be discussed with an eye towards different points of view and a reminder that those who are in power tend to be the ones who write history. Like the Warren Commission. Both facts and rationales for government actions one day get adjusted later. So if you are going to tell the kiddies anything they should be reminded about the then and now differences around other historical events so they can see history can be a moving target.

    Katy I know you wanted to keep this thread narrow and focus on what you would teach – well the comments above about our “rights” and adjustment of our “rights” begs that question. You can’t keep the thread so narrow. It’s one thing to teach about Mohammed Atta and his bunch of merry men and what, a half million in seed money, and the Billions Plus Dollar hit their rather brilliant plan did to the USA, a marvel of asymetrical warfare. And it’s another thing to talk about what the USA should or should not be doing with our “rights”. That is the real plan with this 911 stuff. Using it to indoctrinate to liberal worldview.

    And I agree with the writer above that little kids do not need to be taken into such events in class. 911 (detailed analysis of what happened and why) is an adult theme for older children. It should not be covered in elementary school class.

    And which class in High School would this be given in? English? Art? “Social Justice”? Would you propose it be taught in every class or just limited to history classes and only for the students so enrolled?

    The students I talk to on occasion coming from the public high schools are poor readers without a clue to basic US Civics and American History. While 911 is useful to delineate the decline of the American Empire, it is not so important that it replaces the basic Civics and History education that should be established first.

  • Katy Murphy

    Are any elementary schools marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks? If so, how?

  • Yazstremski

    I hope that elementary school teachers use caution if they choose to discuss this. I do not want my third grader having this brought up without my previous consent, it is too much for that age…IMHO

  • Gordon Danning

    I don’t see why a teacher would add 9/11 to his/her curriculum, simply because the 10th anniversary is coming up. If 9/11 was significant enough to be in the curriculum this year, then it was significant enough to be there last year and next year. If it wasn’t significant enough last year, then it is not this year, either.

    That being said, as others have noted, obviously 9/11 can be used to illustrate the tension between liberty and security, though I certainly wouldn’t tell students that “Bush and Cheney wanted to suspend civil liberties,” because that is too inaccurate in many ways.

    I would hope that teachers in a 10th grade World History class would discuss al-Qaeda and the like as reactions against modernity, rather than reactions against “Western tyranny,” or “imperialism,” or “capitalism,” none of which is particularly accurate.

    Finally, I would hope that teachers would familiarize themselves with the research on terrorism; and excellent place to start is with “Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together,” which is available free here: http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2009/RAND_MG849.pdf

  • Jim Mordecai

    I am impressed with the quality of Oakland History teacher Gordon Dannings’s response regarding teaching 9/11 as I have been in regard to many of his other thoughtful postings. Mr. Danning by responding to Katy’s question by putting her question in the context of scholarly concept of “modernity” makes me feel that Mr. Danning is the type of knowledgeable history teacher I would want for my grand children.

    In regard to Katy’s question on teaching 9/11: 9/11/01 would not this year be of much concern to the media if we had eleven fingers instead of ten. I believe that our base ten system explains why Katy asked about teaching 9/11 this year and not last year. A teachable opportunity for calling attention to how our base ten system influences our media and the media influences what some teachers teach in school.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Katy Murphy

    Great point, Jim! Media coverage of the event — and the attention it’s receiving now, 10 years later — might be interesting to analyze in a number of ways.

  • Nextset

    Gordon: Good post, I tend to agree.

  • Gordon Danning

    Jim and Nextset: Thank you

  • livegreen

    I also agree with Gordon’s post. The context of 9-11 needs to be properly placed, as does the context of 10 years vs. any other year. There is also a U.S. perspective vs. various international/global perspectives.

    One of the themes that gives me concern is the alarm that the worst foreign attack on U.S. soil would somehow cripple our country and economy. The media and certain politicians heightened those concerns for their own ulterior motives and, ironically, enhance the impact of the attacks. Yes, the attacks had to be countered to prevent future attacks. But anybody who feels the 9-11 attacks posed a fundamental threat to our systems of government and economy must also have fundamental concerns about the weakness and vulnerability of the systems themselves.

    Instead, much like Pearl Harbor in WWII, I feel 9-11 was a wake up call to the U.S. and our international roles and responsibilities in the world. How we then act (or react) is to be debated.

    The U.S. seems to be seeking to reassure itself of it’s own importance, demonstrating an underlying insecurity born out by reactive economic, military and diplomatic polices of both Bush and Obama administrations, and superficial sound bite policies by both political parties.

    FDR warned us that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”. Unfortunately this is where we now seem to be. Until a true leader of FDR’s caliber shows him or herself, with proactive and meaningful policies and the confidence and ability to demonstrate it (statesmanship), will we be able to regain our footing and the confidence that comes with it.

  • Lisa Capuano

    I think children are exposed to way too much of our adult world. This is such a complex issue that many adults do not even understand. Let children be children. They need to be sheltered from this pain and horror.

  • livegreen

    To my point in #3:
    “For Muslim family, faith complicates grief for loved one lost on 9/11″


  • Nextset

    Livegreen: 911 is a huge impact in warfare. It is asymmetrical warfare – a David vs Goliath moment if you will. For a capital cost of less than a half million the enemy inflicted billions and billions in damage to the United States (much of it self-inflicted). Just imagine what the next strike – intended to best 911 – will do.

    Compared to this Pearl Harbor was a border skirmish. Had Pearl Harbor not occurred when it did and the US delayed it’s entry into WWII long enough for the Nazis to finish their missile and bomb making research.. Had the delay occurred long enough for Lindbergh to run for President and win… There are novels of these “alternate universes”.

    Pearl Harbor served the US interests (industrialization, relocation of the population west, militarization, bomb and plane building, atomic research, plastics and radio research, GI Bill and higher education for the masses, etc.) so much there’s reasonable speculation our government actually welcomed it. 911 spurred the country to even greater self destruction, being related to the real estate bubble, TSA madness and various economic upheavals.

    It would have been interesting if 911 had spurred us to round up and intern all illegals, to bar Islamists from entering the country at all or some other response other than to set interest rates at Zero and inflate bubbles. Too bad Reagan and Thatcher weren’t at the height of their power at 911.

    On well.

  • Lisa Capuano
  • Nextset

    Livegreen: Re: Your post #20.

    The USA as presently governed is unsustainable. Smart money already knows this. As far as how much time we have before a violent collapse, that’s a matter for debate. But it will happen suddenly. Lessons of history and all that.

    The USA is an empire in terminal decline. No different than any other empire in terminal decline.

    The interesting result of 911 is the self inflicted exponential damage that flowed from it. The US “system” is not self repairing, it it weak, fractured and decadent. Blows like 911 serve to hasten the existing self destruction. For example instead of using 911 as an event to remove muslim access to the nation we prattled on about “tolerance”. Now we’ve sped up the process of encouraging foreign colonies within the USA and slowdown of removal of even criminal invading aliens. We are printing money and debasing the currency as fast as possible and at an increasing rate. This always leads to violent collapse.

    Further 911 events, you can be sure, will be used to increase federal power grabbing in violation of the Constitution. A nation with power concentrated at the center is far more unstable and vulnerable to collapse or conversion to dictatorship than one with widely decentralized power. It doesn’t matter if the figureheads are democrats or republicians, they are both opposite sides of the same coin.

    Democracies always end in dictatorships because democracies are inherently unstable. Another lesson of history. The framework of the states, government power limits (abandoned now) and non-direct election of the senators and president/VP were some the major defenses against the imperial court we now see.

    It’s going to really get interesting in the next 15 years. And not for the better. Watch the smart money and watch the large numbers of people making preparations, even if they are not sure what for.

    Brave New World.

  • TeacherBeth

    At the risk of becoming yet another Blog Flogger, I wrote a piece about my memories of teaching on the actual day of September 11: