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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

20 Years Later, Educators Face Challenges When Teaching 9/11

First Major Exhibition At 9/11 Memorial And Museum To Open
Spencer Platt
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Some of the paintings by artist Manju Shandler are on view at a preview of an exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum titled "Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11" on September 1, 2016 in New York City.

Many adults remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001. The country watched in horror as planes hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

But the collective memory of 9/11 doesn’t extend to today’s schoolchildren, who weren’t born yet. So, how do teachers bridge that divide and educate students about 9/11?

Teacher Jim Nelsen remembers the first time 9/11 was mentioned in one of his U.S. history textbooks. It was 2002, and he had recently started teaching social studies in MPS.

"Milwaukee Public Schools adopted new U.S. history textbooks in 2002," Nelsen said. "The textbook company that we went with literally put articles from USA Today in the back of the textbook because there wasn’t enough time to write about it yet."

Now, almost 20 years later, Nelsen said the curriculum still falls short. He said history textbooks tend to skim over 9/11 in a final chapter on recent history.

"And so that’s a serious issue with teaching 9/11," Nelsen said. "Because it happened so recently, there’s just not a lot in the textbook yet. The last chapter of the textbook is typically gonna cover 20-30 years of history and that’s way too much. Trying to get the last 20-30 years of history into the last chapter is just not effective."

The challenges of teaching 9/11 were reflected in a national survey of secondary teachers in 2018. UW-Madison education professor Jeremy Stoddard conducted the survey.

He found that teachers tend to spend a short period of time on 9/11, usually around the anniversary, and that the narrative is often oversimplified.

"[The narrative] is that it was an unprecedented attack, that there was heroism from the firefighters and first responders, that this evil was the cause – evil terrorism, and then that the world came together to fight back against this evil," Stoddard said.

Stoddard found lessons about 9/11 tended to lack context about the political forces leading up to the attacks, and what happened after, including the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, and the increase in Islamophobia.

"You know, teachers think 9/11’s important, so they’re teaching it on the anniversary, but they don’t feel they have the time to get into the historical context or tying it into other events," Stoddard said.

Emily Files' full conversation with Jeremy Stoddard on teaching the history of 9/11.
Emily Files' full conversation with Jeremy Stoddard on teaching the history of 9/11.

Teachers also told Stoddard that they have to combat a lack of knowledge and misinformation around 9/11. That’s been a challenge for West Allis high school English teacher Kellen Lynch.

"You almost have to unteach what students think they know about it," Lynch said. "Because they watched a 15-minute Youtube video one time, and they’re convinced that the CIA blew up one of the World Trade Center towers to cover something up. So their knowledge is very limited on what they know about the event."

Lynch teaches at a project-based high school where students are given freedom to pursue projects that align with their interests. The 9/11 attacks aren't something many are interested in, though he does remember one student who made a documentary about teachers' memories of 9/11.

"There isn't as much interest as someone from another generation might have over learning about it," Lynch said. "In a project-based school where they can follow their interests and topics, we don't have a lot of students who are interested in 9/11."

Whether they realize it or not, today’s students grew up in the shadow of 9/11. That’s especially apparent for Muslim students.

At the Salam School, a private Islamic School in Milwaukee, teachers talk to students about how discrimination against Muslim Americans connects back to 9/11.

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Emily Files
Salam High School social studies teacher Valerie Douglas and principal Wanis Shalaby.

"Part of what we are doing in this school is to raise Muslim Americans who are comfortable in their own skin and who may look at others who are stereotyping them as people to whom they have a duty to educate and teach them about who they are," said high school principal Wanis Shalaby.

Shalaby said Salam’s teachers emphasize that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of Islam, but an act of extremism.

"What we try to do with students as educators is to bring them back to points of reference – like was this an act of terror or an act of Islam?" Shalaby said. "And definitely we’re able to sort this out with them because Islam has never asked us to murder innocent people."

This year, teaching about 9/11 more deeply maybe even more important to help students understand what’s happening in Afghanistan – and the end of America’s longest war.

Jeremy Stoddard said teachers could work backward in history, starting with the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and working their way back to 9/11.

"This is an area we can do a lot better job — in particular because if history curriculum are where we're supposed to learn about the past so we can understand the present and make better decisions in the future — that's something we don't do very well," Stoddard said.

UW-Madison has put together a 9/11 education resource guide for teachers here.

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