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Lesson Plans of September 11

John Mooney | July 15, 2011

A new curriculum guide explores how to teach more than just the day, from elementary to high school.

Teachers typically light up when talking about the lessons that hit home, the ones that elicit energy and curiosity. But there are lessons that elicit even deeper responses, such as those about September 11, 2001 -- both the day itself and its profound influence.

Yesterday, a coalition of educators, advocates, and survivors' families known as the 4 Action Initiative gathered at Liberty Science Center to release a 236-page guide to teaching September 11.

Three years in development, Learning from the Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism, and 9/11 in the Classroom contains 58 lesson plans for every grade and subject, ones developed and tested by teachers.

It's not just history. One lesson employs a Bruce Springsteen song; another, a painting by Picasso. There are lessons on Afghanistan and media literacy for high school students and another entitled "Sept. 12th" for elementary schools.

NJ Spotlight asked three of the teachers involved in the project to talk about three lessons. The complete complement is available in the full report and on the 4 Action Initiative website.

"A Fireboat and Its Heroic Adventures" (Lesson EIV-9, p. E-34)
Level: 3rd-5th grades
Time: 45-60 minutes
Materials: Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, by Maira Kalman; drawing paper, crayons, paper, poster board, and white T-shirts

One of the big challenges of the curriculum project -- a collaboration of the Families of Sept 11, the Liberty Science Center and the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education -- was how best to approach the subject with young children.

This lesson, developed by the elementary school team of New Jersey teachers and supervisors, starts with the teacher reading aloud a children’s book that tells the true story of a retired fireboat and its owners who helped survivors escape from the river that day. It depicts in drawing the airliners flying into the Twin Towers, but the next page is black.

"And from there it is about everyone working together amid the devastation," said Dena Ann Drobish, a third grade teacher at Parsippany-Troy Hills who helped lead the curriculum team.

One of the lesson’s activities starts with the question, "What is a hero?" Children working in small groups write down their definitions and examples. There is an activity based on the boat’s own history. There's another in which students write and illustrate a slogan on poster board -- or even T-shirt -- commemorating a hero in their communities.

Drobish created and tested the lesson in her own third-grade classroom and had students make heroism awards for a member of their family or others. She said one student gave it to a classmate who stood up for him.

There was always the question of how much would come up about tragedies of September 11, and Drobish beforehand sent out permission slips to parents. All gave permission.

"The children didn’t focus on the tragedy at all, but on the positive," Drobish said. "They described how the boat itself was a hero."

What is Terrorism? (Lesson MII-5, p. M-20)
Level: 7th-8th grades
Time: 2-3 classes (90 minutes)
Key terms: Assassinate, guerillas, radicalism, systematic
Materials: Definition of Terrorism (Handout 1); Examples of terrorism (Handout 2)

In middle school students start to grasp the larger meaning and discover how to ask hard questions. But terrorism is a difficult subject to explain, so this lesson starts with definitions -- from the Encyclopedia Britannica to the United Nations.

"Since some of the terms or concepts may be difficult," reads the lesson plan, "this should be discussed as a class."

"Have pairs of students analyze these definitions and decide: a) What do they mean? b) What similarities are there in the definitions?"

“Pairs should then construct their own definition of terrorism."

The second handout is provocative, asking students to discuss blowing up a building, killing a government leader, even a school shooting.

"The answer is not to come up with one single answer," said Karen Levine, a history teacher at Central Middle School, also in Parsippany-Troy Hills, who chaired the middle school team. "History teachers don’t like single answers, we like to discuss."

Levine said she had students work in groups to come up with answers and then mixed them up with other kids who had different answers, asking them to discuss and defend their choices.

Who is a Terrorist? (Lesson HII-4, p. H-20)
Level: 9th-12th grades
Time: 60 minutes or more
Objective: The student will understand the role that stereotyping plays when identifying terrorists.
Key Terms: stereotype, prejudice, terrorism
Materials: Sketching paper, pencil, masking tape, notebook

Reba Petraitis, a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit led the high school team. She calls this both an arts and a research project wrapped into a history and psychology lesson.

She started by asking her seniors at the all-girls private school to close their eyes and picture a terrorist in their minds. They then were to draw a picture of what they saw and the drawings were put up around the classroom to compare, contrast and discuss.

All were men, several with dark beards and hair. Several were depicted as Muslim.

"And then we went to the computer and pulled up some pictures of actual terrorists," she said. "We had one of Timothy McVeigh. Did he look like any of these pictures? And the suicide bombers, even the children who do this?"

High school students are ready for the provocation, she said, and with knowledge of September 11 events in their own lives, Petraitis said this proved an effective ice-breaker for delving deeper.

"High schools students like to think of themselves as very knowledgeable, all politically correct, having everything down pat," she said. "It throws them for a loop."

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