At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, staff and students are making sure that everyone knows that Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
From watching videos to collecting canned food to wearing commemorative buttons, the school is taking steps to commemorate the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
“You can never do enough, obviously,” Principal Alan Goodwin says.
But whether—and how much—students should learn about 9/11 as part of our country’s history is an unresolved question for many educators across the country. The Associated Press reported this week that “fewer than half the states explicitly identify the 9/11 attacks in their high school standards for social studies, according to a forthcoming study.”
Why not? That’s because “the story of 9/11 is still being written as the country continues to grapple with its impact,” according to the AP.
That’s not the case in Montgomery County Public Schools, where high school students learn about 9/11 and its impacts in history and government courses, according to Kevin Yates, an MCPS instructional specialist in Social Studies.
“We view it as a historically significant event that had a major impact on our foreign and domestic policy,” Yates says.
In U.S. History, mandatory for ninth-graders, students examine 9/11 “through the lenses of domestic policy” and study changes generated by the attacks, Yates says. Tenth-graders must take a national, state and local government course that discusses law-making and the separation of powers. In the class, students read excerpts from the Patriot Act and learn about supporting and opposing views. A foreign policy unit delves into terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. “Obviously, we’re looking at Al Queda,” Yates say.
And in junior year, students taking Modern World History study world conflicts and learn about the war in Afghanistan as a case study.
As for this weekend’s anniversary, it’s up to individual public schools to decide how to handle the event that many students are too young to even remember. The school district this week provided schools with guidelines and resources for creating lessons on its website.
“We’re leaving that open to the schools, principals and teachers,” Yates says.
The guidelines remind schools that students may have no memory of the attacks, and won’t have the same emotional recall that adults do; some students may have had family members killed in the attacks; and teachers should be sensitive to stereotypes about the Middle East and be prepared to address them.
MCPS is not recommending that elementary schools teach the subject, since most kids don’t have the background or knowledge to really understand the attacks and it doesn’t fit in with the curriculum, Yates say.
“Most of my kids here were not even born. It’s something that’s not even tangible to them,” says Jody Smith, principal of Chevy Chase Elementary School. “So we’re really focusing on service to the community. What can we do on that Sunday to reach out to the community?”
At North Bethesda Middle School, Principal Alton Sumner will share some memories of that terrible day, read No Man is an Island by John Donne, and ask students and staff to join him in a moment of silence during Friday’s morning announcements.
Although most of his students are too young to remember, “they do hear a lot about it on the TV news. They are aware,” he says.
Students at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School will watch a remembrance video and listen to a student’s perspective on 9/11 in homeroom, Principal Michael Doran says.
Back at Whitman, students watched videos and wrote notes Wednesday about acts of kindness or public service that they’d like to perform—“anything from be nice to your brother to helping at a food bank,” Goodwin says. The notes are posted in the school’s main foyer. Staff members will be given buttons commemorating Sept. 11.
If the weather doesn’t stop the Whitman football team from playing Winston Churchill High School on Friday night, the two schools are hoping to collect 911 cans of food from those who attend. Whitman players will wear commemoration stickers on their helmets, much like the buttons given to staff, and the school plans to take a moment to recognize police, fire fighters and military veterans, Goodwin says.
He says the anniversary has sparked “good discussions”—an important step in helping today’s students understand the immense effects that 9/11 had on our country.
“Certainly, they’ve moved beyond the time and that’s why it’s good to remind them,” Goodwin says.