How Do You Teach A Tragedy?

John Mooney | July 19, 2010
Educators from across NJ have created lesson plans dealing with 9-11, but is there time in the school day to teach their curriculum?

Credit: NJ Spotlight
A book of poems about September 11 written and published by a middle school class in Parsipanny.
The ambitious project to develop a September 11 curriculum for New Jersey’s schools — if not the nation’s — started with a daylong ceremony in 2008.

Former Gov. Thomas Kean gave the keynote speech, talking about the importance of how teachers in the future will address the complicated lessons of that tragic day.

Two years later, that initial ambition was realized. Lesson plans, stapled and collated, were piled on a conference room table in Trenton, as more than a dozen New Jersey educators last week neared the finish line in their work.

Hailing from Summit to Vineland, the teachers came to Trenton to put the final touches on more than 100 plans they had written and rewritten over countless hours.

Heroism and Compassion

With each one’s objectives, activities and “key terms” all detailed, the plans include elementary school lessons that sidestep the horrors of the actual attacks to instead emphasize heroism and understanding.

For high school history classes, there’s an entire unit on the origins and impact of terrorism. One lesson looks at Americans’ views of Muslims, and vice versa. Another is titled “Grief, Loss and Public Memorials.”

With the 10th anniversary of 9-11 little more than a year away, the aim is to have the final product ready for distribution sometime this fall. Many of the lessons were field-tested in classrooms last spring, and only a few details remain to be worked out.

“We’re so close to home,” said Paul Winkler, the director of New Jersey’s Commission on Holocaust Education, which has spearheaded the work.

While not the first such curriculum in the country, New Jersey’s project is believed to be the first led by a state, in this case in partnership with the Liberty Science Center and
families of September 11 victims.

Creating A Pioneering Curriculum

Winkler’s commission seemed a natural hub for the project, after it developed New Jersey’s pioneering curriculum on the World War II genocide, which is now taught in every public school in the state.

The September 11 curriculum and lesson plans will not be a required part of the curriculum. Instead, they will be offered to teachers in a variety of forms to teach as — and when — they see fit. That will be a big test, given that teachers are already struggling to get through what’s already required.

After piloting the lessons this spring, Winkler read through piles of feedback from teachers who, by and large, praised the lesson plans, some providing their students resulting school work. A Parsipanny middle school class created a book of poetry.

But many also worried about how and when they would fit it all in.

“There’s the question of squeezing it into the regular curriculum,” Winkler said. “That is a theme we will keep hearing as we go forward.”

Reaching a Critical Juncture

A critical juncture in the project came this spring, when Winkler and some of the others met with September 11 family members in May to present their work. By and large, the reception was positive, especially on the emphasis on critical thinking and resolving conflicts through peaceful means, Winkler said.

There were some interesting responses, too. Where some of the early-age lessons that use the term “American hero,” family members reminded the teachers that the heroism wasn’t just of Americans. Several said they didn’t want to over-emphasize the patriotism, Winkler said.

Several widows and widowers worried about one popular lesson around the story of a rescue dog that died.

“It wasn’t so much for other children,” Winkler said. “It was their own children they were worried about.”

Still, as the group last week did the final edits on their work, much came back to the training and knowledge of the teachers for whom they are writing the lessons, and how prepared they will be.

Teaching the Teachers

The hope is for the lesson plans to reach out far beyond New Jersey, but there will be teachers who do not have nearly the same depth of knowledge and empathy.

“If they don’t feel comfortable about September 11 themselves, like it or not, they won’t touch this,” said Ryan Archer, a Parsipanny elementary school teacher.

Some suggested a video to be distributed to the teachers that gives them background material of their own. Others said hands-on training would be critical, much like is offered for Holocaust education.

And they said it won’t be just out-of-state teachers who need to be prepared.

“We need to keep in mind it’s been 10 years,” said Helen Simpkins, a retired Vernon schoolteacher. “How many of our teachers were in high school, or even younger when this happened?”