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Bringing Sept. 11 to history class

High school history teachers use Sept. 11 to link the past with the present. By Sean Alfano.
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Days after classes ended this summer, high school history teacher Liz Morrison heard a song on her car radio. “Have you forgotten?” the lyrics asked. Immediately, Morrison’s thoughts drifted toward September, when she and the rest of the nation’s teachers will face a dilemma: Should they build a curriculum around the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, or proceed chronologically, dealing with the event at the end of the school year?

MORRISON’S INSTINCT IS to create a 30-minute video collage to memorialize the second anniversary of the attacks, something to mark the day and give it context without interrupting the flow of American history. The television news montage would segue into a question-and-answer session, delving into such topics as “How has the U.S. has changed since Sept. 11, 2001?” and “Are we more patriotic?”

Ever since the attacks, high school history teachers across the United States have grappled with the challenge of incorporating such a gigantic occurrence into their teachings. Too important to ignore, but too current to fully understand, the terrorist attacks are not easily fit into the normal lesson plan.


Complicating matters further, textbooks, traditional staples of history classes, cannot keep pace with the endless flow of information. While some textbook companies were able to supply teachers with supplemental materials, like newspaper articles and lists of Internet sites about the Sept. 11 attacks, actual passages are only now appearing inside the books. Most school districts buy new books once every six years.

“We won’t get those new books for two more years,” laments Morrison, who teaches in Manchester, Mo., near St. Louis.

To a large extent, this leaves secondary and even grammar school teachers relying on their own wiles to incorporate 9/11 and the events that have followed in rapid fire order into the classroom.

“The integration is challenging,” Morrison says about bringing Sept. 11 material into her lessons. Morrison says that last year she juxtaposed the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa with Al Qaida’s Osama bin Laden. “Would Villa be considered a terrorist today,” Morrison asked her class?


Sue Chase, who teaches an advanced placement course in U.S. government, has a similar approach.

“If you want kids to understand something you’ve got to tie it to a bigger picture,” says Chase, who teaches in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio.

“Obvious parallels exist,” Chase says, “especially when looking at World War II.” Some are well-trod ground: 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, for instance. Others are more subtle. For instance, Chase says she asked students to compare the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s to the increased scrutiny Arab-Americans have come in for following 9/11.

With textbooks still years in the future, teachers have looked elsewhere for backup materials.

“Things have really changed,” says Chase, who has taught for over 30 years. Both Chase and Morrison say they frequently use the Internet, newspapers and magazines to supply their students with information and viewpoints gleaned from around the world. In recent years, Morrison organized video conferences between her class and students in Israel and Iraq “regarding our perspective on terrorism and their perspective. It was interesting,” Morrison says.


However, making the right connections can be difficult, especially when most teachers have little formal education on Muslim or Arab culture, or concepts like terrorism and globalization.

Merry Merryfield, a professor of social studies and global education at The Ohio State University teaches an online course that aims to bolster teachers’ knowledge of these previously ignored subjects.

The course, titled “Teaching World Cultures and Global Issues,” is composed of teachers from all over the world seeking to apply lessons from 9/11 into their usual curriculum.

“I see it more as a benchmark for many American teachers who were profoundly affected and want to help young people deal with the tragedy,” Merryfield says of the terrorist attacks. “For others it is a teachable moment,” one that emphasizes the importance of following current events and understanding historical contexts of world cultures.

Conducting the class online, Merryfield says, allows teachers to be more expressive than if they were in a classroom. This leads to interesting exchanges, as when three Turkish students in her class disagreed over how to prosecute the war on terrorism. “Because it was online, we were seeing them interact,” Merryfield said. “Their debate got at the complexity of cultures, unlike if they were in a classroom.”

“Online is safer, more comfortable,” Merryfield said.


Regardless of how much her students participate in the online discussions, Merryfield believes her course serves to enhance the education young people receive.

“Good teachers want to make connections between profound events in the world today and the content of their social studies curriculum,” Merryfield says. “The whole idea of our field is helping kids understand our world.”

Chase is equally adamant about making sure she keeps history fresh for her students.

“I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about my teaching,” Chase says. “I’m constantly plucking out editorials to use in class. There are some things that are just incredibly important.”