Award-winning curricula go beyond the terror to explore America's place in the world.
How do you teach about September 11? It's a difficult subject, and it comes early in the school year, leaving teachers little time to prepare when they come back in the fall. But some educators have found creative ways to handle the anniversary.
Photos by Peter Zuzga
For Milwaukee fifth-grade teacher Robert Peterson, and for University of Massachusetts Professor David Mednicoff, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks is a good time to teach about the role of America in the world. Both received awards last year from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for the 9/11 curricula they developed.
Peterson recalls that after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the dramatic scenes that played repeatedly on television, his students had so many questions that it became clear to him that education after September 11 demanded a new approach.
"One or a series of lessons would not be sufficient," says Peterson. He does not dwell on the events of that day, but instead uses the attacks "to help students understand that they live in a global village."
Peterson is an editor at Rethinking Schools, a teacher-run journal on social issues in the classroom. He also teaches at a two-way bilingual school, La Escuela Fratney.
Peterson's 9/11 curriculum is intended to help children express emotions, ask "why?" and develop empathy for other people in the world. In one lesson, he leads the children in a study of world population and distribution of income, and then takes them outdoors to illustrate their research on a large world map drawn on the playground blacktop. With each child representing 240 million people, the kids spread out—15 students in Asia, three in Europe, three in Africa, one in North America, two in South America, none in Australia.
Chocolate cookies are then distributed according to each continent's gross domestic product.
Six cookies are shared by the 15 people in Asia. Nine are shared by three Europeans, one cookie for South America, just half a cookie for Africa, eight for the lone North American.
Most students have strong reactions and many questions. Why are there so many people in Asia? Why are the Europeans and Americans so rich?
Some try negotiating with other "nations," while others even suggest war to even the odds. Peterson says his students begin to glimpse how the world's enormous inequalities could lead to animosity.
Social awareness is familiar ground for Peterson, who teaches such topics as "Sweat Shop Math" to illustrate child labor in the third world while strengthening his students' math skills. "When kids get engaged in social justice issues, it enlivens the classroom," he says.
Like Peterson's students in Wisconsin, Mednicoff's college students were not just alarmed by the terrorist actions, but deeply puzzled about why some people hate America. Students in his "Explaining Terror" course for juniors and seniors were surprised by what they learned about the pattern of Western involvement in the Middle East and by the range of opinions held by others around the world about the events of September 11. Mednicoff encouraged his students to keep journals about their reactions to post-9/11 world events and invited them to suggest new American policies toward the Middle East.
Are these classroom experiences unusual? Or have recent world events encouraged other social studies teachers to take a closer look at America's place in the world in their classes?
Mednicoff thinks the latter is happening. "September 11 was very much a wake-up call," he says. Students are much more interested in world events than they were a decade ago, and the demand for courses about the Middle East has increased. At the same time, public institutions are struggling for funds to expand international studies.
But Peterson is less optimistic about changes in social studies teaching, noting that social studies is very textbook driven and that teachers must go out of their way to find more relevant teaching resources.
He adds that "with the increasing pressures of No Child Left Behind, there's less emphasis on social studies. It's all but eliminated. The focus is on math and reading to prepare for testing."
For more on how Peterson and Mednicoff teach 9/11 and related topics, visit: www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/sept11/ and www.courses.umass.edu/mes491n/index.html.