Friday, September 9, 2011

Teaching 9/11

Today I was down at the local high school for which I'm the faculty liaison to observe three of our student teachers.

About five minutes into the first class, around 9:35 or so, the PA came on and a student's voice said, "At 9:37 a.m. on September 11, 2001, a plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D. C.  At the same time, hijackers had taken over Flight 93 and turned around to head for Washington."  Similar announcements kept up throughout the period, recounting what was happening at that particular time on September 11th, and then asking for a moment of silence to remember the victims.

It was surreal to be sitting in a ninth-grade algebra class learning about the order of operations and then to periodically get these harrowing interruptions.

In the third class I observed, a ninth-grade below-level English class, the student teacher addressed the topic directly.  She grew up in New Jersey, and her school was directly across from the city, with a full view of the skyline and the Towers.  When the first plane hit, her teacher took all the kids outside to see it, telling them, "You're witnessing history right now."  And then the first Tower fell.  The student, who was twelve at the time, remembered that she was wearing a yellow shirt and jean shorts, and that she was standing next to a kid named Robert, and that she grabbed his arm when the Tower came down.

Immediately, the teacher whisked all the kids back into the school, where they spent the rest of the day scared and confused as the teachers debated whether to tell them what had happened or not, since so many of the kids had parents who worked in the city.

It was an incredibly moving story, and the students in the class--most of whom have some kind of intellectual or developmental disability--were totally tuned in.  What did she feel when she saw the Towers fall?  Did she cry?  Did she know anyone who died?

The student teacher followed up her presentation with a writing assignment, asking students to write ten sentences in response to several prompts she offered.  The last two were "Name something you're proud of about our country" and "Describe what you can do to show your patriotism."

I cringed.

I understand that she was close to the events.

I understand that she saw the Tower fall with her own, 12-year-old eyes.

I understand that this is an important anniversary, and probably even more so for her for reasons I can't fathom.

Is it, therefore, petty and selfish and insensitive of me to critique her lesson, or at the very least, the focus of the writing assignment that followed it?

We need to talk about, and teach 9/11.  But must we do so, even ten years on, in a way that romanticizes the events of that day, ignores all that has followed, and paints a portrait of national unity that frankly wasn't true even at the time?  She said, in her presentation, that 9/11 brought Americans closer together and created unity.  Not for everyone, everywhere.

I couldn't help but feel like I had just witnessed the way history gets flattened for K-12 consumption.

In my observation report, I focused on her interaction with students and said I was glad to hear her story.  And I suggested that if she were to teach the lesson again, she might want to consider other points of view--especially if she has students in the class who are Muslim, or of middle-eastern heritage.

It was all I could say without going crazy.  Unfortunately, she had a class the very next period, so all I could do was hand her the paperwork and tell her to e-mail me if she had questions or wanted to meet to discuss things more fully.

"Was it OK?" she asked, looking a little anxious.  She was only concerned with how the lesson had gone, whether she was going to be a good teacher.  I learned from the lead teacher later that this particular student has had some problems with asertiveness and self confidence.  I worried that the fact that I'd critiqued her lesson and then dumped the paperwork on her and ran from the room would do more harm than good.

I came home and wrote her an e-mail, which I'll probably never send.  She doesn't need to know all of this, but I need to say it, so you--my dear, long-suffering blog readers--get to be the audience for it.  So I'll apologize to you, too:

Hi [Student]--

I wanted to send a follow-up e-mail about the observation sheet...I wish we'd had time to discuss it in person, and I felt bad about just leaving it there with you without putting things in context.

The story about your own 9/11 experience was, as I wrote, riveting, and meant a lot to me and to those students to hear. I was living in Colorado at the time, so the events were still horrifying, but seemed distant in a way, too.  One of the things that's been interesting (and scary) about being back east is learning how much more directly people here were affected by the events. 

So--I don't want you to think that I had a problem with the topic or how you handled it.  I guess my concern had more to do with the issue of balance.  To be sure, we need to remember the victims (who were from 100+ different countries, as one of the FSHS announcements said!), and we need to honor the heroes.  But I think it's also important not to forget the ugliness and divisiveness that followed.  Muslims, and people who looked "Arabic" generally, were attacked in the streets.  People sent hate- and vengeance-filled e-mails.  Some people were rallying for war, others for peace.  Rather than using this experience to empathize with others in the world who live and have lived with terrorism on a much more regular basis, some people became insular and reactionary.

As I wrote, I know this is an important anniversary and that you may never have the opportunity (or desire!) to teach it again, which is why I hesitated to say anything about it.  But in a larger sense, I do feel like--as educators--we're especially obligated to present all sides of an issue, especially one that's so potentially controversial and divisive.

Did you see the audio stories that WVU posted for the anniversary?  The one at the very bottom, by a student from Pakistan who was in Morgantown on 9/11, is especially moving, and gives a different side of the story.

Anyway, I apologize for harping on this.  I guess, on some level, I'm trying to make sense of what the anniversary means, too.  I had to teach on the afternoon of 9/11, and I remember struggling to know how to handle the situation. In the end, I went into class and just asked the students what they wanted to do:  talk about it, or just press on with the lesson for that day?  Overwhelmingly, they said to press on--so I did.  I guess I've spent the last decade trying to figure out whether I did the right thing, and where my own reaction to such an event ends and my responsibilities as a teacher begin. 

Again, I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk about this in person.  And I apologize if this seems like I'm unloading on you--I don't mean to; I just wanted to to explain why my comments may have seemed weird or cryptic!  The lesson itself was fine, and you did a great job of drawing the students in and then helping them individually with their work.

Don't you wish you'd been teaching Algebra today, too???  :)

Sigh.  I guess this proves one of the maxims of WVU's teacher-education program, which is that "the teacher is a self-reflective practitioner."   What it doesn't say is how uncomfortable and complicated being self-reflective is.

One of the ways I myself have taught 9/11 over the years is with the "e-lore" that I collected at the time and archived.  I often have students in my folklore classes look at the archive so we can talk about how folklore has adapted for electronic transmission.  But it also provides a disturbing insight into the informal ways that people were channeling the fear and uncertainty they felt at the time.

Today, I thought:  thank god I kept that stuff, because otherwise, maybe no one would believe that's part of the history, too.


Jane said...

Great post, Rosemary. Thank you.

I recall how much I didn't feel patriotic after 9/11. The serious journalists and artists often did a good job of conveying the complexity and diversity of response, but it felt impossible to have a nuanced and sincere conversation in real life, outside a small circle of like-minded friends or relatives.

I agree, it would have been great if the student teacher could have figured out a way to invite her students to say/write more open-endedly and not have to fit themselves into the box of "patriot" or "American." What about the simplicity and power of speaking only for the "I"?

Rosemary said...

Wow, Jane, I wish I'd had the presence of mind to think about framing my comments around the issue of open-ended vs. highly directive prompts. That would've actually been a pedagogically useful bit of feedback. Though realistically, I know that I was so flustered I probably couldn't have done anything other than what I did.

What I really don't understand about all these anniversary observations is how so many of them seem designed merely to retraumatize people (e.g., describing events as they happened over the school PA, or CNN rebroadcasting its live coverage from 9/11 in real time this morning).

How does that heal anything, or honor anyone? It's like picking a scab--it just hurts again, and leaves a bigger scar.

Plus, with the high-school kids, I got a strange sense that the adults were, in some ways, trying to make sure they *were* traumatized--since the students weren't old enough at the time to understand the full horror of 9/11, it's like the adults wanted to make sure they got to feel what the rest of us felt.

And what I *really* don't understand is the sort of perverse nostalgia for a "post-9/11 unity" that never existed.

At any rate, thanks for your response--now, as ten years ago, it's good to know I'm not alone in these feelings.

Jane said...

This is such an original insight: "... the adults were, in some ways, trying to make sure they *were* traumatized--since the students weren't old enough at the time to understand the full horror of 9/11, it's like the adults wanted to make sure they got to feel what the rest of us felt."

It's like a weird kind of medicine is being forced down their throats.

Ms. Byrne said...

Hi, Rosemary.

I empathize with your discomfort while in the lesson and in trying to frame productive comments. Could she have been making a choice to give her students a structure that was easy to explain and complete? As I think back to working with below-level students in my student teaching, I remember making choices like that to simplify tasks. Now, that opens a debate for whether u should simplify and/or dumb-down sensitive material for special needs students...and I'm not exactly advocating that...but maybe you could address that aspect of her teaching choices? I remember my host teacher saying something like, "you should always know what is motivating your pedagogical choices in the classroom." And...I know I would appreciated a whole lot more productive feedback from my mentors. I'd think about addressing some part of your remaining concerns.

Rosemary said...

Well, hello, "Ms. Byrne"! Thanks for reading...and, as always, for showing me where I haven't looked yet.

The more I process this experience, the more I realize that I was caught off guard in several ways--first, by not knowing that there was going to be a 9/11 observance in the school that day, but also because this was the first time I'd been asked to observe the special-ed preservice teachers. Not being familiar with their specific pedagogical strategies, I wasn't sure what to look for, other than basic signs of comprehension and class-management issues.

So, I felt weird commenting on the content of the lesson, even though that's all I was able to focus on once it got started.

But your host teacher was absolutely right that "you should always know what is motivating your pedagogical choices in the classroom." In fact, I should write that on top of my notepad any time I go out to do observations, since it's as true for *me* in my role as observer as it is for the teacher in front of the classroom.

And yes, it was that look on her face ("Was it OK?") that signaled to me how much I'd failed her as a mentor. I need to follow up with her in some way, though not in the way I wrote about here. Thanks for the encouragement to do so.

Christy said...

Hi Rosemary,

Although I don't teach anymore, I've often lamented that my *least* favorite part of my job is supervision. And after reading this post, I understand why. Mentorship is such a mixed bag. How do we guide and coach, but also -- when necessary -- critique, and all in such a way that the person we're coaching will hear what we say, openly and with verve for improvement, rather than turning away with sadness, self-loathing, or resentment? No one sufficiently trains us for these roles. There's no roadmap, and I think in some ways most good coaching comes about by accident, or when the 'coach-ees' help to make us feel we've done right by them, which means they have the grace and maturity to put aside their own high stakes in the matter.

To make matters more complicated, we of course relate to these folks -- heck, we've been there, having to please someone more seasoned, more senior, or in a more authoritative role.

In the end, no matter what we do, if we're worth our salt and not utterly burned out, we question ourselves. Were we fair? Did we translate our concerns thoroughly and properly. Did we mince words for fear of sensitive skin? Did we come on too strong because the person seemed like he could 'take it.' It boggles the mind.

Add to this the sensitivity around the events of 9/11, and it's a wonder you were able to say anything at all. I think you did well under the circumstances.

I agree that a post script to this student teacher might be helpful --perhaps for you as much as for your mentee. Good luck! I hope you'll fill us in if the story continues.