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Educators divided over what to learn from 9/11

By Audrey Schewe
CNN
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(CNN) -- When American history teacher Stephen Conrad taught a one-day lesson on the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, his students wanted to share personal stories. Five years later, he finds the connection is fading.

"There is the same amount of interest," says Conrad, who teaches 10th graders at Council Rock High School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. "But there is less direct experience with 9/11."

As the fifth anniversary of the attacks approached, what should secondary students across the country be taught about this historical event and its aftermath? That depends on whom you ask.

After the attacks, numerous education, media and civic organizations published materials for teachers on a wide spectrum of topics. Lessons varied from teaching traditions of Islam and a history of U.S. policies in the Middle East to promoting tolerance of different cultures and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But perhaps the biggest divide has occurred between those who stress teaching values and patriotism and those who encourage questioning U.S. policies and examining terrorists' motives.

"There is a difference between 'America deserved it' on the one-hand and 'America is the beacon of freedom and equality for the world' on the other hand," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

In 2002, the institute issued a report called "September 11: What Our Children Need to Know." Finn and other contributors promote teaching students that there are moral absolutes such as "good vs. evil" and "right vs. wrong" and support 9/11 lessons that teach history, civics and patriotism.

"There is a civic function of social studies," says Fordham report contributor Lucien Ellington, an education professor at the University of Tennessee. "Young people need to know that the world is a dangerous place, and there are really powerful forces that wish to destroy the United States and what it stands for."

Ted McConnell, director of the National Campaign to Promote Civic Education, agrees.

"What was under attack on 9/11 was not so much the symbols that were the buildings, but they were the values and the principles that unite us as American citizens," McConnell says. "It is vitally important that our students learn just what those values and those principles are."

Other experts, however, reject the notion that seeking to understand the motives of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks equates to legitimizing them.

"Looking to understand Islam does not extenuate any more than if you look at the origins of Nazism and the rise of Hitler, and the reasons that people supported Hitler," says Columbia University history professor Eric Foner. "Is that defending Hitler?"

Foner, who wrote a chapter called "9/11 and After" in his textbook "Give Me Liberty! An American History," sees the careful study of September 11 as an opportunity for students to re-examine essential questions in U.S. history.

"There are issues that have come to the fore as a result of 9/11 that will now be more emphasized in the teaching of history -- the question of civil liberties in wartime, for example, or the question of America's role in the world and the changing nature of our relationships with other countries, particularly in the Middle East."

Foner says it can get complicated when teachers try to get students to think about the ways the country has changed and responded to the events of 9/11.

However, he says the "purpose of teaching history is not only to give students a sense of the country's past, but to teach them to think critically and to weigh different points of view and come to their own conclusions."

Some interpret a critical analysis of U.S. policy as unpatriotic.

But Foner argues that students "can get their patriotism from many many places. I don't think that the way to uphold freedom is to create a generation of students who are just force-fed patriotic pabulum by their teachers."

Teaching the teachers

Navigating the controversial waters of teaching 9/11 can be intimidating for some teachers. But it can be even more problematic for them to cover subjects they know little about.

"From a world history and geography perspective, students need a better understanding of Islam in general, the regions of the world where it is practiced, and within that an understanding of radical Islamism," says Ellington, who also co-directs the University of Tennessee's East Asia program.

In working with his social studies teachers-in-training, Ellington says, "I find that my students don't have a clue about how to approach this issue."

Textbook coverage of these topics is often insufficient, and few classroom teachers have been schooled in non-Western cultures.

Historians and scholars are addressing this void with forums that "teach the teachers."

The Foreign Policy Research Institute's Marvin Wachman Fund for International Education hosts high school teachers and junior college faculty members at weekend history institutes that feature seminars led by some of the nation's leading scholars.

In a weekend institute on "Teaching 9/11 and the War on Terrorism," educators from around the country attend workshops such as "Terrorism in a Historical and Cultural Perspective," "Understanding Terror Networks," "Understanding Jihadism," and "The Question of Homeland Security."

Ellington, a senior fellow at the Wachman Fund, knows that while these institutes go far to educate teachers, getting young people to graduate with rudimentary information about the histories of non-Western countries is an enormous challenge.

Study after study indicates that young Americans know little about the world.

"Sixty percent of young adults couldn't identify Iraq on a map," Ellington says. "Until system reform of social studies occurs, it will always be problematic to teach about international affairs."

Classroom realities

Even if teachers are well schooled in the subject matter of 9/11 and terrorism, the logistics of the high school history curriculum do not lend themselves easily to those discussions.

"On the 11th of September, U.S. history courses are typically somewhere between Columbus and the Pilgrims," explains Finn.

At Council Rock High outside Philadelphia, Pennsylavania, Conrad diverges from his U.S. history curriculum for a mini-unit on 9/11. He hopes to help his students understand how something that happens halfway around the world can affect their lives.

But with just two days to cover the emergence of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the events leading up to 9/11, the attacks themselves and their aftermath, Conrad admits it's a challenge.

"There is a lot of ground to cover, and you don't want to do that in a quick, thoughtless way," he says. "You want to make it interesting for the kids."

Time is not as much a factor for Cascade High School teacher Brian Fenderson, who teaches a two-week unit on 9/11 and terrorism to seniors as part of a semester-long course called Contemporary Issues.

For Fenderson, the challenge is getting his students to understand the attacks of 9/11 in the broader context of terrorism. "I want them to understand that it isn't always Americans who are the targets of terrorism, that terrorism is a global issue."

Since Fenderson's students live in the small agrarian town of Turner, Oregon, far removed from the East Coast, he places the attacks into a local context.

"We have a terrorist on trial for attempting to put in a training camp in southern Oregon. This case brought a real sense of urgency to the kids."

A day to remember

Regardless of the challenges educators face in teaching about 9/11, many teachers, historians and civic groups argue that schools should acknowledge the day.

Recommendations range from observing a moment of silence and flying the flag at half-staff to holding a schoolwide assembly featuring video and expert speakers.

In Conrad's school community, a number of people lost loved ones in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. At the school's annual 9/11 commemoration, the chorus sings "America the Beautiful" and the school band plays "Taps" following a moment of silence.

Anthony Gardner, director and founder of the World Trade Center United Family Group, urges schools to acknowledge the day by observing a moment of silence and encouraging students to talk about the event.

Gardner's group, one of the original family advocacy organizations that began in the aftermath of 9/11, has partnered with the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College in New York to develop high school materials which will include an interactive DVD teaching aide and written materials.

To engage students, many of whom were in elementary school when the attacks occurred, the program will feature documentary footage and personal, first-hand accounts of 9/11 from survivors, family members, eyewitnesses and rescue workers.

Gardner says the National 9/11/01 Civic Education Program will be easy to adapt by classroom teachers.

"They will be able to do a one-day lesson timed around the anniversary, or they can build it into a larger American history course."

The materials also will include a remembrance program that schools around the country could easily use each year on the anniversary.

While one of the goals of the program is to "protect the legacy and memory of the September 11 victims and to ensure an authentic perpetuation of the historic events," Gardner emphasizes that the thrust of the materials is to direct students toward civic participation.

"The youth of this country will be the first line of defense in the war on terrorism," explains Gardner. "What better weapon against that than an informed citizenry?"

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Flying flags at half-staff is among the ways some schools remember 9/11.

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