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Students increasingly removed from 9/11

Teachers try to stress importance of event to those too young to remember

September 10, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Kindergarten teacher Lauren Pangborn reads the book "September 12th: We Knew Everything Would Be All Right" to her class Friday morning at 9:11 a.m. at Salem Avenue Elementary School in Hagerstown.
Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

In the first years after the Sept. 11 attacks, classroom discussions about the event were weighted and energized by students' personal memories of that day, local teachers said.

Where were you when it happened? How did you find out? How was your family affected?

"It had so much meaning for them, because perhaps a parent is in the military, and then it becomes this personal discussion about how that moment in time -- that one single moment -- just changed everything in their lives," said Rossana Cardinale-Larrick, who teaches world history and AP U.S. history at Washington County Technical High School.

But the lifespan of this particular lesson is nearing its end.

"This current year's juniors were only in the second grade (in 2001), so I'll quickly run out of these teachable moments," Cardinale-Larrick said.

As the years pass, teachers across the country will face the task of adapting their lessons about Sept. 11 for students who are increasingly removed from it, said Gene Ebersole, Washington County Public Schools' Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for social studies.

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"I think one of the things our teachers try to do is to try to stress the importance -- the fact that it was a tragic event," Ebersole said. "Sometimes, kids don't see it that way. It's not as meaningful as if it happened while you can really remember it."

For most current elementary school students, the Sept. 11 attacks will always be confined to that vast world of "before I was born," but that doesn't stop many schools from marking the day -- or, this year, the Friday before -- with observances such as a moment of silence or an invitation to wear red, white and blue, said Steven Wernick, Washington County Public Schools' supervisor for elementary reading, language arts, social studies and early learning.

Elementary school students might not be old enough to understand the attacks, but teachers who choose to discuss them can focus on themes such as showing unity in the face of tragedy, Wernick said.

Salem Avenue Elementary School teacher Lauren Pangborn said she uses a book called "September 12th: We Knew Everything Would Be All Right" to introduce this concept to her kindergarten class.

The book, written and illustrated by the first-grade students at an elementary school in Kennett, Mo., focuses on the day after Sept. 11 and the many comforting ways that life went on as usual.

"I like this book because they don't talk about blood or guts or killing," Pangborn said. "They just say something really bad happened."

After the book, Pangborn said she talks with students about the importance of using kind words and talking out problems before they lead to a fight.

"In social studies, we try to really bring a sense of community into the classroom," she said. "Even if we don't agree with someone's opinion, it's still valued. Even if we don't look the same, we don't talk the same, we're still valued in this room."

In the upper grades, the demands of curriculum and testing limit the amount of class time that can be spent discussing Sept. 11 on or around the actual day, Ebersole said.

"Many of our history (teachers) usually do that just briefly and then they pick it up more in sequence at the end of the semester or the end of the school year when that falls in with the context of history," he said.

One teacher who did take time out Friday for a Sept. 11-themed day was Fred Kreiger, who teaches a hybrid U.S. history and government class for freshmen and sophomores at North Hagerstown High School.

"I guess basically the reason I teach it is I think ... for this generation, it could possibly be one of the most important historical moments that they ever experience," Kreiger said.

After the students write about and discuss their memories, Kreiger's classes watch a video about the attacks and their aftermath, including the efforts of emergency responders and President Bush's response.

"It gives them perspective on what really happened ... because a lot of them were too young to really remember or understand how that all went down and the importance of how the president handled it," Kreiger said.

Another gap in some students' knowledge is a clear understanding of who was responsible for the attacks and what precipitated them, educators said.

"I started teaching three years ago, and at that point, not all, but a great many of the students had knowledge of what Sept. 11 was and why we were at war in Afghanistan," said Genie Massey, who teaches U.S. history and government to ninth- and 10th-graders at North Hagerstown High School.

By last spring, however, Massey found many students believed Iraq was somehow behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's a pretty logical connection for many of the younger students who don't spend a lot of time watching the news," she said. "They get bits and pieces."

While teachers can help students connect those dots correctly, their lessons of the attacks likely won't have the impact of a first-person memory, Ebersole said.

"People that lived through Pearl Harbor, they remember that day, or the death of Kennedy ... they remember lots of details about that specific day just because it was such a shocking event," he said. "Our students today don't have that shocking sense about it. That's just one of the things that tends to happen over history. You're either living through it or it's something that's past."

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