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For Most Students 9/11 Is History Lesson, Not Memory

For Most Students 9/11 Is History Lesson, Not Memory
For Most Students 9/11 Is History Lesson, Not Memory
GUESTSRick Selby, History teacher at Innovation Middle School David Peters, family psychotherapist with a private practice in Mission Valley.

CAVANAUGH: Today America remembers the attacks of 911. We also remember how that terrible day affected us, how it changed our feelings of safety and brought about years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many middle school students, September 11th is not a memory. It's something that happened when they were toddlers or before they were born. On Monday, the 8th graders in Mr. Cell bee's U.S. history class in Clairemont got an hour-long lesson on September 11th. For many, it was their first real introduction to the terrorist attacks that happened eleven years ago. This morning, I spoke with Rick Selby, history teacher at innovation middle school. It's surreal for someone who was an adult or even a teenager on September 11th to think that this event has to be taught to school children. Where do you start with a lesson like that? SELBY: Well, what I think is important is the 8th graders that I have now were only two or three years old. So I want to find out what is it that they know or think they know about what happened on 911. And then I find it, you know, to be somewhat factual, but a lot of things not so accurate. So then I end up teaching events that happened, giving them information about the twin towers. I used this year the 911 memorial has a really good interactive timeline on their website. So I went through some of the video clips and still images that they have listed there so that the students get some information about what happened and then that way we have a better ability of talking about things if they don't have the prior knowledge. CAVANAUGH: What do these 13 and 14-year-old kids know before you begin the lesson? SELBY: The vast majority of the kids know the basics that planes flew into buildings in New York City. Some of them know some things about the other planes. Most of them know things about Al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden, especially because that's -- killing Bin Laden has been relatively recent for them. So it's kind of a mixed bag of how much they actually know. CAVANAUGH: What aspects of 911 do you think are most important to include when you're actually teaching this has a lesson? SELBY: There's a few aspects. The one I really emphasized this year is how it changed things in terms of their life and security and freedoms because 8th graders cover the constitution and bill of rights. So I think they need to understand what life was like for us before 911, in terms of, you know, especially our 4th amendment rights so they can compare to see what an important event it was in terms of our daily lives. CAVANAUGH: Do you avoid teaching some aspects of 911? SELBY: I don't know if I necessarily avoid things. It's just that we don't go into too much depth. I spent a full lesson on it, which was about an hour. So it was just how much depth you can go into so it's not a factor of avoiding. But each class was different. Some classes, we got into more discussion as we were analyzing some of the political cartoons in terms of their reactions of the nation. So some classes talked about stereotyping and various things that may have occurred as a result. But no, I don't think I avoid anything in particular. CAVANAUGH: Right. Let's get a sense of how some of these kids respond to what they hear. We have a clip. NEW SPEAKER: It makes me feel more cautious and very sad about what happened. And that we're stronger, united. CAVANAUGH: That's a group from Melinda Vu. One thing that's interesting is the way kids are learning today. It's not just in books anymore. They've grown up in the age of social media. So your lesson is made up of videos and interactive timelines. Tell us about that. SELBY: Well, the students are very tech-savvy, so they like to go deeper into things. If you look at Yahoo and you see things are trending, they may go down that road just because they see the topic. So if I can plant a seed of something that happened, they might then on their own explore. So with the 911 lesson, there have been some link I put to the Wiki page, hey, if you're more interested in this, go and check out this site. And the more sights and things I can give them, the more likely they can investigate it on their own. CAVANAUGH: And as they're investigating on their own, do they come back the next day or lesson and say look at what I found or do you know about this video? Or I didn't know this part of the story? Is that also part of the intersection that you get with your classes? SELBY: Absolutely. And then tomorrow when they turn in their homework assignment, I gave them a lot of freedom of what to do and what to research and how to present their information. So I'm looking forward to seeing what it is they find out and the ways they're directed. The request I gave them was what will they do to remember 911, so I'm interested to see what they uncovered. CAVANAUGH: How do kids who are learning about it react to the lesson? Is this different from an glue day in class? Or is this just some of the information they're receiving about the world and not that much different anyone anything else? SELBY: I think it varies on their own personal experiences. I had a student yesterday who shared with the whole class that she was actually living in New York. Of course she was an infant at the time. But her father was driving to work. And after the after the first plane crashed, he turned around. And if he hadn't turned around, we would not have been able to get out of the city. So by her sharing that, a lot of the other kids, because it was a peer thing now, and it had a face to the story, versus if we cover something in the revolutionary war, they're looking at it as an event that happened long, long ago. CAVANAUGH: What do you think is the hardest thing for these kids to grasp? SELBY: That's a great question. I think it would depend on the kid, probably. But some of the things I think that's hard to understand is why. Why there are factions in the world that resort to, you know, ugly means to accomplish their point. I think that is hard for them because they don't culturally know the depth of evil that's out there. I think that's hard for them. Why does it happen because it's so sad? CAVANAUGH: Any reactions that have surprised you? SELBY: Yesterday when we were talking, there was eye few kids that had some really good insights as to the effect of things when we were looking at some cartoons from the time period, some of their responses in terms of the metaphor of the evil sharpening its claws. And it surprised me, some of the kids how insightful it was on the analysis. So that was really good to see CAVANAUGH: Let's play another clip from one of the students in your class. Jasmine. NEW SPEAKER: I feel more sad because we found out how many people were rescued. CAVANAUGH: What are the kids learning from each other in this class as they talk about it and as they cover new information and new videos? SELBY: Since it's still early in the school year, that it's helpful for them to see perspective. So when they're talking about an event that may have some emotional component to it, they see other perspectives in the classroom, a real good variety of experiences, and some students can bring that to class, when they hear friends say it, it makes them think about things differently. And any CAVANAUGH: And any feedback from parents? SELBY: Yes, I have, I have had parents sometimes just talking about their own emotional responses, and talking about what they felt, and how it's affected them. CAVANAUGH: And David Peters now, family psychotherapist with a private practice in mission valley. Now, let's say your children come home from school today saying they had a lesson about the attacks of September 11th. Should a parent expect any particular kind of reaction from their child? PETERS: Well, for middle school kids, I think they should be ready for the nonreaction. What can impress us is how little young people know about things that are still very vivid in our memories. And you want to make sure your attitude is one of inviting them to ask questions and learn more rather than merely shocked they don't know anything. CAVANAUGH: Or perhaps that they're not feeling something. PETERS: Yes. CAVANAUGH: All you have to do is mention the anniversary of 911, and whether or not you're very wrapped up in it in that moment, there is an emotional response that most people can very easily access. And yet if you don't have that as part of your memory, it's that -- that's just not there. PETERS: It's not there at all. Most of us experience some form of trauma to some degree because we all saw it over and over again. If it was an event that we just heard about or saw once, many of us would have known about it but not suffered as much. But we were glued to our television sets for week after week replaying the same darn tapes and feeling that misery, that fear over and over again. So some people in our generation and older still feel some reluctance to talk about what they went through, and that's important to check on yourself because sharing what you went through with your kids is a very important part of letting them know about who you are, who the family Swhat life is like for you. And young people in middle school, they're at that age where they want to know what the adults have not been telling them. What else don't want I know? To be able to talk with them about if you suffered during that time, if you were tearful or if you felt depression, Thad be a good opportunity to share this is what it was like for us, this is how I heard about it, this is when I went to the television set or I was with your father and we sat together and cried. This is an opportunity to help your kids grow and become members of our society. CAVANAUGH: We heard from one of the girls, the students in a sound bite about -- she was saying that hearing about this made her more cautious. How do you respond as a parent if a child comes home and is disturbed by the idea the country they live in could be attacked this way? PETERS: Yes, you open them up to the realization that we be vulnerable to attack. It could happen again. At that middle school range, we want to begin introducing them to that reality. So you talk about what's really possible, and also what we're doing to prevent it. And cultural defenses also. On an international level, what do people do to prevent such misunderstandings? The people who assaulted us had a very narrow view of what America was. So teaching them about cross-cultural communications in the big picture, that's something to stimulate them as far as what they can do, and then teaching them about the security systems around us that are keeping us much more safe. CAVANAUGH: In the way Rick was talking that children learn now, going home and accessing videos, a child could come across some really horrific images of 911. And I'm wondering if at that age that should be monitored or if that's the kind of thing that indeed kids have to be able to look at to understand the magnitude of an event like that. PETERS: In the video age, everybody wants to see the video. Of and the video isn't as important as the facts. Seeing the images of people falling from the sky, these are horrifying events. And human mind watches that, but seeing something that's on the Internet, very real looking, and we know it's factually true, I'd be cautious about encouraging my kids to watch videos of. This but definitely the facts are important. You might ask them, have you seen videos? Did they show the tape at school? Ask them how they felt. For some kid, it's not going to sink in very much. Other kids could feel great fear or sadness. And then to share their sadness or horror allows them to learn how to manage their emotions. It's our job as adults to help all young kids to learn to manage the power of their emotions. What's it feel like? You feel sad? I felt sad too. Your mother and I felt very, very sad when we watched this, and it was very painful. What do you think when you feel it? And that dialogue helps grow the child.

For Most Students 9/11 Is History Lesson, Not Memory
Most American adults still have visceral memories from the morning of September 11, 2001. But for most San Diego school children, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. are something they hear about in history class.

Rick Selby has been teaching history in San Diego Unified schools for 20 years. Each of his five years at Innovation Middle School in Clairemont Mesa has included a lesson about Sept. 11, 2001.

“I do something every year since it’s happened and sadly as the years progress, the kids know less and less," he said. “So before it was more a reflective piece and it’s turned into more of an educational piece. Teaching what actually happened, so they kind of have an idea that planes hit a building. But other than that – that’s kind of the basics.”

Selby starts the lesson by telling his students to take five minutes to write down the things they think they know about the day that hijackers took control off four planes, flying three of them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashing one in a field in Pennsylvania.


These eighth graders were all two or three years old on Sept. 11, 2001. And when they read the facts they've scribbled down, most have the basics mostly right.

Many mention the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers, some talk about Osama Bin Laden leading the attack, others talk about bombs.

San Diego Unified encourages teachers to talk about the events of Sept. 11 in class – but Selby thinks taking the time to do a whole class on the attacks is important, especially as kids have fewer of their own memories about them.

“It’s one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history. So I think they need to understand what happened, the impact it had on – not just New York City but the whole nation. And the world. And how it has changed things," he said. "And that’s one thing – they don’t realize how things have changed. And then when we cover the amendments later in the year and we talk about the Fourth Amendment, then it can be tied back into a lot of the security measures that we have now that we didn’t have before.”

During the lesson, Selby’s students hear about his own trip to the recently opened September 11 National Memorial and Museum in New York and watch a video that includes news footage that is still sickeningly familiar to most American adults -- images of the planes hitting each World Trade Center tower.


And then they imagine what people were feeling in the weeks and months after the attacks.

Anger, fear, sadness, depression are just some of the ideas they come up with.

Melinda Vue didn’t understand the impact seeing the ongoing news coverage must have had on people, she said.

“Before the lesson started I just knew how the twin towers fell by terrorists, but I never knew about how the news was after and how bad and devastated many people were. It was a really great shock,” she said.

Jasmine Fontenot hadn’t known there were victims outside of New York City.

“I only knew that the terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers – I didn’t know about the Pentagon,” she said.

Eduard Barnabe knows a little more than many of his classmates about the events of Sept. 11. That day also happens to be his birthday.

“Every time it comes around I feel like sad. I remember, but then I realize it’s time for rebirth and to move on," he said.

Vue and Fontenot agreed the lesson made them feel differently about the anniversary.

“It makes me feel more cautious and very sad about what happened and that we’re strong, more united and to help prevent that to happen maybe in the future,” Vie said.

“I feel more sad because we found out how many people were rescued, but it was only a little amount,” Fontenot said.

Selby hopes that this is one class the students will take to heart.

“The end, when we’ve covered what happened, is how are they going to remember 9/11 and what are they going to do?" he said. "So they have a choice of what homework assignment they’re going to do.”

Later this week Selby’s students will turn in a poem or a cartoon about what they’ve learned. Or, they can write a letter they would send to someone who lost a loved one that day.