Ten years later: teaching 9/11

August 23rd, 2011

As the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, many of you may wonder how and what to say to the students in your classroom. How do you teach something that is so recent and fresh? Joan Brodsky Schur, author of Eyewitness to the Past, was recently a panelist for the Smithsonian’s September 11: Teaching Contemporary History forum. She shares some of her suggestions for marking this anniversary with your students in a meaningful way and placing the events of 9/11 in the context of modern history.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the National Museum of American History’s “O Say Can You See?” blog and is republished here with permission.

In these beautiful summer days of August 2011 the last thing I want is to revisit the day of September 11, 2001 in New York City where I still live.  As the school year opens many teachers, wherever they live across the United States, may feel the way I do. But we need to go down the hole of one of history’s darkest days in order to come up with some light to shed on it for our students this September.

Here are a few suggestions I can make after considerable thought about teaching in the 10th year of our post 9-11 world.  First, be clear about your goals. Memorializing is a way to express shared grief, to honor lost lives and those who tried to rescue them.  By creating works of art, singing appropriate songs, and participating in public service activities, students of all ages can forge a renewed sense of community within their school and beyond. But after memorializing we must also teach history, especially to  secondary students who can begin to contextualize it. The task then becomes analytical: what were the causes of 9-11, and what are the consequences for the United States and the world?

Teachers justifiably wonder about finding the time to teach about September 11. One way is look for those essential questions that can help us to compare aspects of 9-11 to other events in U.S. history as we teach them throughout the year. I have identified five essential questions that will hopefully prove useful in this ongoing endeavor.

  1. What accounts for the resiliency and spirit of volunteerism in the United States? The American Revolution, Great Depression, and World War II come to mind.  In New York City on 9-11 governmental agencies at all levels responded to an unprecedented emergency.  So did ordinary citizens. At Battery Park over half a million people were ferried to safety by fireboats, yacht cruises, sightseeing boats, and tugs.  A similar event occurred on the night of August 29th, 1776 during the Battle of Long Island. American forces, pinned down by the British in Brooklyn were ferried to safety in Manhattan by what David McCullough calls “a makeshift emergency armada assembled in a matter of hours.”
  2. The U.S. government needs to protect the safety of its citizens while also protecting our civil liberties. What is the proper balance between the two? The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, the Espionage and Sabotage Acts passed by Congress during World War I can be compared to the USA PATRIOT Act, and the “detention centers” like Guantanamo Bay.  Each of these efforts to protect citizens may have seemed justified in a moment of fear, but how is their Constitutionality judged over time?
  3. Under what circumstances is U.S. military intervention justified?  President Roosevelt’s War Message to Congress of December 8, 1941 can be compared to President Bush’s Address to Congress of September 20, 2001 and declaration of war against Iraq on March 20, 2003 in terms of how each one meets or does not meet the criteria used in “Just War Theory.” These criteria include just cause, right intention, proper authority, last resort, probability of success, and proportionality.  (For a lesson plan I wrote on Franklin Roosevelt and Just War Theory go to PBS http://www.pbs.org/thewar/downloads/just_war.pdf.)
  4. Once at war, how should the United States protect citizens who are at risk for reprisal?  These groups include the French during the French Revolution, Germans during World War I and II, and the Japanese — who were placed in internment camps during World War II. In the wake of 9-11 Japanese Americans advocated for the need to protect the rights of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.
  5. What should be the relationship of the United States to the international world order?  Over time Americans have both rejected and accepted membership in/adherence to the League of Nations following World War I, the Geneva Conventions, which in 1949 delineated the humane treatment of prisoners during wartime, the establishment of the United Nations after World War II.  How does the Bush doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” following 9-11 fit into this on-going debate about the role of the United States in the world order?

Originally published in the National Museum of American History’s blog, O Say Can You See.

Entry Filed under: Content Areas

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  August 23rd, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I really appreciate the thought provoking questions/areas to discuss mentioned in the post.

  • 2. Blog Watch: Tuesday round&hellip  |  August 30th, 2011 at 9:14 am

    […] respect the needs of young children,” Joan says. Read the full article here and then revisit Joan’s tips for teaching 9/11 from a piece on the Stenhouse […]

  • 3. Getting Ready for the Ten&hellip  |  September 6th, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    […] Joan Brodsky Schur, author of Eyewitness to the Past, provides teachers with five essential questions to help students think deeply and compare September 11th to other events in history. […]

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