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Teachers Look for the Lessons of Sept. 11

Education: The tragedy is seen as a source of insight, but instructors are wary of debate.


David Massey has given his students at Chatsworth High School an unusual weekend homework assignment. Find and tape television footage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and bring it to school for extra credit.

The tapes will form the basis of a lesson Massey is planning for his advanced film and video studies class on Wednesday, the first anniversary of the deadly attack.

"We'll look at the imagery of Sept. 11, how they were broadcast and how they entered the memories of people," said Massey, an Oscar-nominated maker of short films. "There is no video imagery more powerful than 9/11 that the United States has seen. Those planes will be etched in us as long as we live."

Teachers around the country are preparing to replay Sept. 11 next week in many ways. The anniversary has emerged as an occasion for special lessons on history and techtechnology, poetry and psychology, art and architecture, hatred and patriotism.

But many classroom instructors are wary of being drawn into political, emotional and pedagogical debate over how to teach about terror, its causes and aftermath.

Should the subject be avoided or open for discussion among students? Should teachers point the finger at terrorists or preach tolerance? Should they talk about emotion and feelings or history and politics?

"It's not an easy subject, but I don't see how we could avoid it," said Nancy Goldberg, an English teacher at Culver City High School, where one student lost a parent in one of the hijacked planes. "I want to deal with it in a personalized way, but you don't want to get maudlin about it."

Goldberg and colleagues have been passing around short stories and poems that deal with the subject of loss but do not mention the terrorist attacks. They will meet a day or two ahead of time to decide how to approach the subject on Wednesday.

Many teachers across the country, busy with back-to-school duties, have said they haven't had time to complete their anniversary lesson plans.

Others said that strict state guidelines on classroom content--in California as well as other states--leave little time or room to devote to Sept. 11 topics. Other teachers are procrastinating out of distaste for reliving such a tragic day. Still others, worried about parental or student backlash over such a sensitive topic, are consulting colleagues and principals more extensively than ever.

Many teachers plan to keep discussions tightly focused on factual presentations or history. Audrey O'Keefe, an art history teacher at Jordan High School in South-Central Los Angeles, said she plans to discuss the architecture of New York's World Trade Center and the valuable artwork that was lost in the Twin Towers.

She will avoid discussing emotions. "We don't want to drag them through something that they might not be ready to emotionally remember," she said.

Some teachers said they are relying heavily on the Internet for material. With the anniversary approaching, groups including Gazette, the National Education Assn., the Red Cross, the Families and Work Institute, and Teen People magazine have created lesson plans or tips for teachers.

Much attention has been focused on the NEA's suggested curricula for Sept. 11. Among more than 100 lesson plans, which were submitted by teachers, the teachers' union site,, features links to pages about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and an essay calling for tolerance. It also includes links to 60 organizations, including the CIA, the American Legion, FOX News, PBS, the White House and the Red Cross.

Some conservatives have been outraged by what they saw as a possible plea for understanding of terrorists. "The NEA, clearly a union out of step with the vast majority of the country's fine teachers, should be roundly condemned for their 'blame America' approach to teaching our children about 911," said Katherine Smith, a Republican candidate for California superintendent of public instruction, in a typical broadside against the NEA Web site.

But Kathleen Lyons, an NEA spokeswoman, said such criticism is inappropriate and misinformed.

"It is designed for you to pick and choose ideas, just as teachers do on a variety of subjects," Lyons said. "If you actually go on the site, you're certainly not left with the impression that we're trying to blame America."

The NEA has stressed that the controversial link was meant to make sure that all Muslims are not smeared.

Beyond ideology, some teachers have said they prefer to focus on emotion, tapping into students' sorrow, fear or anger through poetry, journal entries or plays. Some plan to devote class time to charity work, raising money for victims' families, writing letters or making quilts and art.

Lyn Lathrop, a sixth-grade teacher at St. Lawrence School in Rochester, N.Y., said she would have her students write about what they remember and whether their lives have changed in the past year.

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