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Teaching 9/11: How educators are responding 10 years later

Attempts to teach 9/11 has forced educators largely to abandon textbooks in favor of more flexible and vibrant resources – from online art to in-class presentations by witnesses.

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In this May 4 file photo, Ivy Preparatory Academy sixth graders watch a news reel of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in school in Norcross, Ga. Ten years after the attacks, attempts to teach 9/11 has forced educators largely to abandon textbooks in favor of more flexible and vibrant resources

David Goldman/AP/File

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As Diana Hess learned that airplanes had slammed into the twin towers in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, her first instinct was to cancel her classes for the day. But before she could, the University of Wisconsin education professor began receiving frantic calls from her students – pleading with her to hold class as planned.

“They were concerned about how to teach about what had just happened,” Ms. Hess says. Her students were student-teachers who taught in classrooms – from kindergarten to 12th grade – in the mornings and attended college courses in the afternoon. “They had little experience with events of this scale and scope, and they wanted to get help on how to teach about the event with their children right away,” she adds.

It was clear early on to Hess that textbooks alone were not going help teachers and students make sense of the events of 9/11. But what was she going to tell her students? How do you teach 9/11?

That question launched Hess on a decade-long study on how this pivotal event in current American history is being taught across the country. Her most recent findings were published Thursday.

Hess found that grappling with 9/11 has forced educators to look to new, more immediate, resources. They have had to remain flexible curators of a heavy stream of audio, video, long- and short-form journalism, and even in-person presentations, to adequately teach a historical event that remains current.

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