Sept. 11: How Do We Teach Children About A National Tragedy? | St. Louis Public Radio

Sept. 11: How Do We Teach Children About A National Tragedy?

Sep 10, 2014

Debbie Sobeck and her fifth grade class at Kennerly Elementary School discussing the events of Sept. 11 on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Credit Julie Bierach / St. Louis Public Radio

How do educators teach about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, especially with students too young to remember the tragedy?  

Starting out, they must identify why they’re teaching about Sept. 11, said Marvin Berkowitz, co-director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Those reasons may include teaching facts of history, or convincing students of a certain value message, or encouraging them to learn to struggle to think critically about complex issues and events. Once the purpose has been identified, teachers can determine the best path.

The age of the students also is a factor.  

For Stephanie Downs, a fourth-grade teacher at Premier Charter School in St. Louis, conversations about Sept. 11 focus on empathy.

“I think the younger the kid is, the more personal it has to be,” she said. “You have to teach them what it meant to people and what it meant to families because that’s something they can understand. If it’s too big, then it’s too hard for them to understand.”

For all age groups, Sept. 11 raises questions.

“There are questions that even adults struggle with, like ‘Why would someone do this?’ The ultimate answer is I don’t know: I don’t know why someone would do this, and I don’t know what would convince them to do this, but I know that afterwards there’s a lot of good that came out of it too, so that’s what we have to focus on.”

For James Mueller, an eighth-grade teacher at Fox Middle School in Arnold, the questions are more fact-based.

“They ask me questions about who’s responsible,” Mueller said. “Many times they don’t know. Many times they confuse people like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.”

Mueller said it’s his job to clarify the details and provide background knowledge that many of the students “just don’t have.”

But before those conversations start, Mueller says he likes to warn his students that this is a “serious topic that is going to probably bring out some emotions in some of them.” Mueller said he works from the start of the school year to create a no-judgment environment in his classroom.

“If you’re going to deal with emotionally charged issues, if you’re going to deal with challenging issues, issues that can provoke reactions in kids that may be strong and long-term, then you need to do it in a culture that’s supportive and appropriate for that,” Berkowitz said.

Mueller then works to connect students with history.

“Most of these kids have either family members or friends, people they know who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so connecting it to their own life is usually not at all a challenge, and being able to connect it to history really kind of brings history alive for these kids,” he said.

At the high school level, Sept. 11 conversations are more encompassing. Annie Wayland, a social studies teacher at Parkway West High School in Ballwin, said the school uses a two-prong approach: Reflecting on the attacks through digital archives, memorials, personal accounts and stories, and the “educational approach of war on terrorism, foreign policy and post-9/11 policies.”

At that level, Sept. 11 conversations are reserved for one or two days of the year. “I think that most teachers are constantly coming back to the topic in a number of different ways,” she said.

In high school, students are asking why the attacks happened, as well as what’s going to happen as a result and has it happened before. “That’s when we start to connect some of those iconic moments throughout history.”

Today, for many students, their first exposure to Sept. 11 is at school.

“When I first started teaching nine years ago, kids had pretty vivid memories of the day,” Mueller said. “Now they have almost no memory and very little background knowledge of the events. It’s become, in some sense, more of a challenge. Another sense is, though, when you’re the first person to cover something with young people, they don’t have as many misconceptions as I would say maybe they used to.”

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