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 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:
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.