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Are teachers shying away from discussing 9/11 in the classroom?


Monday, I had planned on writing an article on how 9/11 is remembered in schools throughout the county. I hopped on Facebook and sent out “Hey teacher friends! Did any of you do anything special with your class for 9/11?” as a post for all to see, assuming I would get a few responses from teachers in the area.

To my surprise the majority of the comments I received were not from teachers, but from parents of school aged children, all of which reported that when they asked their children about 9/11 after school today most of them had no idea what it was and none of them did anything to honor the day.

Breanna Jochum of Slidell said her third grader, Bella, was confused when asked what 9/11 was.

“I was so excited to hear about what Bella did in class today,” Jochum said. “But she was like what are you talking about? We didn’t do anything for 9/11. I was shocked.”

Nikki Collier of Carriere, had a similar experience with her son Cannon, a first grader at Pearl River Central.

“Cannon didn’t even know what 9/11 was and said they didn’t event all about it,” she posted.

Former Mississippi teacher, Leda Tretbar, posted that at schools she had taught at previously, administrators would instruct the teachers not to talk about the events of 9/11, saying that it may not be appropriate for teachers to talk about with their students.

“I don’t have students on Mondays this year but in years past I have been told by my principal not to talk about it because some parents may not think it's appropriate for children to hear about,” Tretbar explained. “I think that is sad and I would totally talk to my students about it.”

I found this very surprising, maybe because I’m from a generation that lived through it, but I remember lengthy discussions taking place in classrooms every anniversary following 2001. After doing a little research however I discovered the lack of 9/11 remembrance in schools to be a trend throughout the country, and has spurred many debates among educators and parents.

The reason being, like Ms. Tretbar explained, many administrators fear possible parent backlash due to recounting the grim details of the day — that maybe it is a discussion that should strictly be had at home and not at school because the rehashing of events from that day could have a lasting affect on young minds.

“Could have a lasting effect on young minds.” I read that quote exactly from a discussion board and all I could think was… “Well yeah and it should.”

It had a lasting effect on our young minds as we walked into classrooms where teachers stood frozen in shock behind computer screens. It had a lasting effect on us when we watched on live TV as people jumped from the twin towers. It had a lasting effect on us when we learned kids who were 7th graders just like us were on their way to a field trip in Washington DC when terrorists hijacked their plane and flew it into a building full of innocent people. It had a lasting effect on us to know that people out there hate us so much just because of who we are and where we were born and our world as we knew it would never be the same.

I decided I’d turn to Facebook again and get a few more parental perspectives on the matter. I posted “Okay parents let's have a discussion… Should or shouldn’t 9/11 be discussed in elementary schools?” Twenty seven people responded, a few of whom seemed a little confused or maybe even offended by my asking. Most of the responses were all the same; Yes they should, in an age appropriate way. Here’s why:

“I think it should just make it age appropriate,” Gabrielle Rivero Guillot said. “I think they need to understand that scary things do happen, but there are always people to help and that we can overcome.”

Mollie Wagner explained that her sixth grade son Jayden was interested in learning more about the events of September 11th on his own but his curiosity wasn’t really encouraged Monday at school, and that her kindergartener of course knew nothing, her children both go to West Side.

“Jayden talked about it all on his own all day, he even asked his music teacher if they could watch memorial videos. He just told me they didn’t do anything for it, they didn’t even talk about it,” Wagner said. “I think it for sure should be discussed. We still have soldiers fighting because of the actions on that day. Our kids need to know that and future kids need to know that.”

Now, just as these mothers said, I think lessons about September 11th should be age appropriate. I’m obviously not saying a seven year old needs to watch as men and women fling themselves from burning towers, or that they need to know that a terrorist could attack anywhere at any time, but they need to be aware of our history — of how different things were just 16 years ago and how one event changed our world and started a war that is still going on. Not only was 9/11 devastating due to loss of life and the actual terror it caused it changed the makeup of our country. Legislation changed because of what happened on that day. The way we traveled changed. The way we attended large events changed. How can any American History class be taught today without discussing that day? How can any class of young Americans be taught today without at least acknowledging the day itself? As one facebooked said, not remembering 9/11 in schools could have serious implications down the road.

“It shaped our history, drastically. A lot of legislation and social changes came after 9/11,” Mitcheal Thornhill commented. “Revision and redaction of specific history is going to have bad implication in the long run.”

It’s a modern reminder that good and evil actually exist and morality is not relative. Its also a reminder to our youth that we Americans are the good guys in the fight against evil, and that we have conquered many of the monsters but are still fighting. In society today you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who loves to talk about how evil the Nazis were, because for generations after their crimes children were taught that Nazis were evil and Americans were good. So why is it taboo to talk about evil today? Is it to shelter our kids?

Our kids need to know that evil exists. If we shelter them from all that is truly bad how will they know the difference between good and evil? What will be their moral compass?

So then what is the answer? How do you discuss such a hard day with a class of eight year olds without terrifying them? Well there are age appropriate lessons out there. Teachers can do a unit about community helpers, as one facebooker pointed out, a united on service men and women and what their jobs are, or even a unit on Peace itself, like Susan Spiers, gifted teacher at South Side Elementary did.

“I’m doing a ‘Promote Peace’ unit. In fact my fourth through sixth graders are suppose to be doing random acts of kindness,” Spiers explained. “We also read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Then I showed them pictures of the cranes the Japanese people sent to New York after 9/11. Then they each made an origami paper crane.”

“I think for K-2, community helpers should be talked about and how important they are (firefighters, emt, & police,etc) to the community. For older grades 3-6, discretion should be considered on how you want to present 9/11,” former. Picayune teacher Jenna Taylor posted. “Overall though, I think (my opinion) teachers should consult their administration on how they should approach the topic as to what type of information should be shared and discussed.”

My mother, Stacy Reese, who teaches Teacher Academy at Pearl River Central, showed her students the video of the young lady in her dorm room at NYU fleeing from her building as the towers fell, then she showed them the video of the girl today remembering what it felt like. She followed the videos up with a class discussion about the videos and how her students would handle the situation had they been inside that dorm themselves and witnessed the attacks. Leslie Espy, who teaches special education at PRC middle school, explained that even though she was out Monday she set the foundation to have a discussion with her students about hate, 9/11, and what it means to be an American.

“I missed school (Monday) but I had my sub show a video of what happened and then a video of the memorial. (Tuesday) we will take time to talk about hate and what it leads to; being a citizen of America and what that looks like - not a race or gender. But a people who overcome together,” Espy posted. “It's a sad day but one of my favorite days to teach on because of the social implications of today. I love taking time to discuss social situations and what it means to us!”

Kami Becerra whose daughter is in Kindergarten at PRC, commented about a book that has helped her daughter understand in a way.

“Lainey has a book called ‘The Little Church That Stood,’ about the church across the street from the twin towers,” she said. “It tells the story in kid terms. About how the church was untouched and how all the first responders would meet there to take breaks. It’s such a sweet story and it helped Lainey understand somewhat about 9/11.”

There are clearly many age appropriate ways to bring up the topic and discuss the significance of September 11th but yet it seems the subject is easy for teachers to shy away from. I am in no way insinuating that no other teachers besides the few I mentioned discussed 9/11 with their students Monday. I'm simply wondering if time has clouded our understanding of what happened that frightful September morning. Yes, there were villains who did awful, wicked things, and that may terrify our children, but I hope we don't forget that, in the face of evil, brave men and women stood—some until the point of death. And I think that's a lesson worth passing on.


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