Friday, September 2, 2011

A Problem of Standards: September 11 in School

"What are you doing to commemorate 9/11 in the classroom this year?"

I'm sure nearly all teachers have encountered this question in the last month, perhaps more.  On the ten year anniversary of the attacks, our schools are expected to... well, to do what they are supposed to do: educate and inform students about the world in which they live.

I'd never say that social studies teachers "love" this stuff, but in a way, it's why we do what we do.  Wars and diplomacy, technological milestones and catastrophes, assassinations and visits of state, the good and the bad, defining moments drive history and we grasp those events, the more current the better, to draw our students into a curious desire to understand their world.

Yes, it's a t.v, not a microwave.
I remember from my childhood, a major national or world event meant that if our teacher couldn't find a television to bring into the classroom that we'd be crowded in the room of the teacher who could.  The Iran-Hostage crisis,  the attempted assassination of Reagan, the Challenger explosion and the Iran-Contra hearings all provided current relevant events that opened the door for my teachers to share the history leading surrounding these events.  These teachers helped me to understand the context of the milestones and understand why they were so important in my life.

That is part of the problem.  Those events are now history, as much a part of the past as Abe Lincoln, Teapot Dome, the Russian Revolutions and even (gasp!) the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Kids entering high school this year were not likely to have even been in school on September 11, 2001.  Adults look back with words like "I remember it like yesterday."  Answer honestly, if you're over twenty-five years old, isn't it surprising to think that ten years have already passed?  

An article in the most recent Education Week laments that a majority of states' education standards don't mention September 11.  On the eve of ten years, and the standards of History haven't caught up.  Is this really a problem?

It depends.  I remember June 2001.  My tenth grade World History (1500-present) class had already taken their SOL test.  The test didn't carry as much weight then, but it was still important.  I was glad to have over four weeks of school left after the test to cover content outside the standards, which at the time didn't reach any of the major events of the 1990's.  We learned about the Soviet conflict with Afghanistan and the political movement called the Taliban that had taken control of Afghanistan.  That spring, the Taliban had been destroying historic Buddhist monuments and forcing Hindus to wear identification to single them out.  My students easily drew comparisons between what this Taliban government was doing in spring 2001 and the events that transpired in Germany prior to World War II.  I chose this content because of its relevance.  It unfolded as we learned about it from multiple news media.

Three months later, those same students watched the world change.  They'd never heard of Osama bin Laden, but when the President of the United States called out the Taliban government of Afghanistan, there should have been at least seventy-five eleventh graders in Virginia's public schools who knew exactly what he was talking about.  In the minds of those students, September 11 probably sits on the knowledge perch of "current events" as it still does in mine.  For today's students and those of the near future, September 11 is placed on the shelf of history along with the Kennedy Assassination, Pearl Harbor, The Great Depression, the sinking of the Lusitania, etc.,

I worry that if we fret too much about adding September 11 to "the standards" or mandate that schools and teachers conduct lessons about September 11 on its anniversary, that for this generation of students we will turn it into another static monument of an era past.  There is nothing "standard" about the current affairs of our world and the dynamic influence of history.  Any worthy curriculum should be able to address this.

In the spring of 2001 I was able to help students explore a narrative that reached back to the Age of Imperialism, stretched into the twentieth century, and had yet to culminate in the 21st.  I had already hit the high points that students would have to remember for their test.  "All that you need to know is that Asoka converted to Buddhism after a particularly bloody battle, his empire was called the Mauryan, and it was in India.  Yes, there's a story, but we don't have time for that you've got sixty other facts to learn before May."

I hope that we don't turn September 11 into another checkbox standard like so many others.  Can a teacher of American history examine the aftermath of the Cold War and explain the changing face of American culture in the 21st century without discussing September 11?  Can a student of US Government understand the growth of executive power and declining right to privacy in the last decade without starting with September 11?  Can one learn about World History and the global relationships of the modern world without the context of September 11?

Certainly not.  But I'm not ready to reduce it to a standard of learning, giving it the first panel of the "most important moments of the 21st century" poster.  Standards of history and social studies aren't meant to be comprehensive lists of important names, dates, and places.  Real history standards provide enough context to understand and enough flexibility to explore the rich paths that human society has created.  For now, I am comfortable knowing that September 11 has yet to appear in the "standards" in many places because I know that my colleagues will provide their students with opportunities for a rich understanding of that day regardless of standards of learning.

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