September 11 Curriculum Gets a Real-World Test

John Mooney | May 3, 2011 | Education
For NJ educators involved with a pioneering 9/11 curriculum package, the death of Osama bin Laden is more than a teachable moment

Reba Petraitas was like any good social studies teacher when she heard that Osama Bin Laden had been killed: she started thinking about how to apply it to the next day’s classes.

Students in her 9th and 12th grade classes at Kent Place School in Summit would want to talk about it, and she needed to be prepared.

But Petraitis also had an extra task as a leader in New Jersey’s pioneering project to develop a curriculum for how to teach the events of September 11 to generations to come.

“It was the first thing that came to mind,” she said. “Oh my God, I have to write another lesson for this. We have to put it in, it’s important.”

The death of bin Laden, the man most responsible for the 2001 attacks that left 3,000 dead, was surely a teachable moment for schools across New Jersey and much of the country yesterday.

But it held special resonance for Petraitis and the other dozen New Jersey teachers and educators who have led the curriculum project for the past three years, one close to completion with the coming 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Paul Winkler, the director of the state’s Commission on Holocaust Education, has been the chief coordinator of the work out of the state Department of Education. He said the weekend’s news developments were like a test run of the new lesson plans for kindergarten through 12th grade.

“As a result of what happened last night, I thought more than ever let’s get this out there,” he said from his Trenton office.

With an upcoming meeting to finish the lessons, Winkler said he hopes the project will be unveiled before summer, ready for teachers in the coming school year.

The package includes more than 100 lesson plans on a wide range of topics related to September 11, not just the actual events but those that address terrorism through history, the role and mythology of heroism, even a lesson on grieving and remembrance. They are specified by grade level, from the elementary school classroom to international studies courses for high schools.

It is not the only September 11 curriculum project in the country, but it is touted as the only one led and sanctioned by a state education department, in this case through New Jersey’s Commission on Holocaust Education. The project was initiated by the Liberty Science Center and the Families of September 11. In addition, the project’s teachers have begun to work with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan

But over the course of almost three years, the development of the curriculum has been a labor of love for the teachers involved. All are working on a volunteer basis and meeting ad hoc both as a large group and among themselves.

And each lesson has been through its share of debate as to whether it’s sensitive enough or too sensitive, and how best to address events where the wounds are still raw in much of the country — especially in New Jersey.

Among the group’s final product is a section for high schools that is called “Post 9/11: Consequences and Challenges,” including several lessons that touch on bin Laden and Al Qaeda and their continued role in the world.

“We have something for that,” said Petraitis with some relief, since her group is developing the high-school lesson plans.

But she said it would need some updating with bin Laden’s death this weekend, as will many of the plans over time. Conflicts and wars start and end, she said, and global politics is always changing, as demonstrated by the Middle East over the past several months.

And of course, there will be the nationwide remembrance that will come with the 10th anniversary next September, a date that comes in the first week of the school year for many.

She said there was a taste of what’s to come today with the flag waving and displays of patriotism.

“It was the like the Fourth of July parade, with the flags everywhere,” she said. “Leading up to September 11, this is just the beginning. There is a lot of emotion about this, and schools will have to address it.”