The front page of The Washington Post from September 12, 2001. Image courtesy of The Newseum.
Around this time of year, there are a good numbers of articles and blog posts about how to teach about September 11, 2001, especially to a generation of students that doesn’t know what happened or may know what happened but doesn’t have much of a memory of it. It’s an issue that makes total sense–eleven years passing may not seem like an incredibly long time to someone like me who was 24 on that day and is 35 now, but for the high school sophomores I teach, eleven years ago was preschool.
Being the father of a kid in kindergarten, I know that when you’re four or five years old, you don’t fully comprehend what’s going on in the world, so I can’t expect to have my students share deep reflections on where they were that day. I have always felt that it’s necessary to teach about that event, and teach it in a way that is more than simple lip-service patriotism or a special moment of silence or whatever your average school will do on an otherwise ordinary September 11.
As an English teacher, doing so isn’t necessarily in my domain; after all, this is probably the jurisdiction of a history teacher. But the journalism teacher that’s still in me has always felt the need to really take a look at the day’s events because it was such a huge media event, and one that really tested the mettle of those chosen to report the news in the way that a presidential election (which is more or less the same story every four years) doesn’t.
Virginia’s changing of our SOLs actually provided me with a chance to do so these past couple of years, as the Dept. of Ed. has added a standard that addresses “media literacy.” My colleagues seemed hesitant when we first talked about it, but I had the opposite reaction–in fact, my eyes probably lit up when I thought about how I could crack open my old journalism lesson plan binder and see what I could repurpose for English. I created a small unit for my advanced English class that I called “Reading 9/11.”
A condensed version of a unit that I once did with my journalism I students a number of years ago, I set out not to study the history of the event, but the way its story was told. My goal in crafting the unit has been to get my students to consider where information comes from, and the quality of those sources. Added to “What happened?” and “What do you remember?” were questions like, “What makes a good source?, “How is this being reported?,” “What is the value in reading different types of sources to look at the same thing?,” and “How have these events been interpreted?” This, hopefully will lead to maybe not a full understanding of the events of the day (which requires a significant amount of research), but at least an understanding and appreciation of the scope of 9/11.
I took five days of class for work and discussion, although I assigned all of the reading ahead of time (I tend to do this in advanced English so that my students have the opportunity to plan and manage their time), and tried my best to take a back seat to their own “discovery” of the events (with some guidance on my part–I am still allowed to do that, right?). Here’s how it broke down:
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner from September 12, 2001. Image courtesy of The Newseum.
Day 1: Here’s where I did the most “teaching.” I reviewed basic “media studies” terms–objective, subjective, bias, perspective, primary source, secondary source, etc.–and we discussed where we get our news, how trustworthy news sources are, and also talked a little about what personal memories we had of that day. It was interesting to hear how many students remember that something happened, there were crying parents, and in most cases they weren’t sure what had happened. It was also satisfying to know that the terms took all of five minutes to go over because they all knew them already and all I had to do was embellish a little.
Day 2 (first half): Showed several newspaper covers from September 12, 2001 and we talked about how subjective they were versus how objective the headlines are versus how subjective they are. The most objective, we decided was the one from The Washington Post, which was a straightforward declarative headline. The most subjective? The San Francisco Examiner, whose headline read “Bastards!”
Source for Day 2 (first half)</em> — The Newseum
Day 2 (second half)-Day 3 (first half): Students used iPads to read articles from the September 12, 2001 edition of the New York Times as well as the October 2001 issue of The Spectator, the student newspaper of Stuyvesant High School. I allowed for basically a full day in the class for reading these because I felt it would be fun to do something with the school’s iPad cart (and the class had been a little jealous when my other classes were using it last week for some research), and it was fun to read them on the iPads.
Sources for Day 2(second half) and Day 3 (first half) — The New York Times and The Spectator
Day 3 (second half): A discussion of the two newspapers read in class. This didn’t go particularly well and I think that it’s because it was the only teacher-led discussion we had. I had some questions I wanted to ask, but for the most part those questions were met with silence and I wound up providing commentary more than discussion. The reason, I told my class, I had picked the two papers was pretty specific.
With the New York Times, I wanted them to see the news as it was reported the day after and how much we knew/did not know about the events (when I taught journalism, btw, I showed the actual NBC footage … however, a former colleague who also teaches journalism still has my tape) and how sometimes even in a 24-hour news cycle, we don’t know everything right away. Plus, they could take a moment to evaluate how objective the reporters were and could try to put themselves in the shoes of someone buying the NYT on the day after–something made especially easy since it’s an interactive graphic of the actual front page.
Stuyvesant High School’s student newspaper, on the other hand, offered a completely different perspective than the one they were used to. The New York Times reported on the national scope of the events; The Spectator, on the other hand, reported on a very local aspect, and from a student body perspective. In addition to articles about how the administration handled the tragedy to the general confusion the day caused, there are several testimonies from students about their personal experiences from the day. It’s valuable because it gives my students a chance to see what people their own age were going through and hopefully brings it down to their level (in a manner of speaking).
Day 4: A discussion of Sarah Bunting’s essay “For Thou Art With Us” and the G-Train podcast about the events that occurred in Gander, Newfoundland after air traffic was grounded and 38 planes were rerouted there. Bunting’s essay is an amazing account of her being in Lower Manhattan on 9/11; the podcast is a discussion with Jim Defede, the journalist who wrote The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander. For this discussion, I turned things over to the class by way of the fishbowl discussion. We started with “For Thou Art With Us,” and as with any time I’ve ever tried the fishbowl, it started pretty slow at first, but picked up steam, especially as they began talking about the elements of Bunting’s essay.
My class had really enjoyed the essay and spent time talking about the way it was written and how that conveyed Bunting’s sense of shock, horror, and trying to comprehend what was happening right in front of her eyes. There is a good amount of cursing in the essay and even some instances where she cracks some jokes (albeit bad ones) while the events are unfolding around her, but they really got how that’s how people naturally react to such events; moreover, some of my students took to breaking down her narrative from a psychological standpoint (some are taking a psych class this year) and that was a really fresh way to look at it. What I had to offer was more of an analysis of her style and structure, although I did tell them that I have never read that piece without feeling completely wiped at the end. Quite a few agreed.
Funny enough, I had done this last year as a teacher-directed discussion and it didn’t work well. At the end of the year, my class suggested I do more fishbowls, and they also suggested I provide printed copies of “For Thou Art With Us” at the discussion day so they could flip through them and point things out. This year, I made 30 copies and handed them out at the beginning of class … it worked incredibly well. H/T to last year’s advanced group.
The Gander podcast was meant to be a counterweight to “For Thou Art With Us.” If you’re unfamiliar with the events of 9/11 in Gander, basically what happened was that 38 planes were forced to land at the airport there and a town of 10,000 people grew by about 7,000 almost overnight. Defede discusses public health issues, crisis management, and spins a great tale of the amazing hospitality that the people of Gander and the surrounding towns provided in those first few days after 9/11 for those stranded passengers. It’s an incredibly hopeful story that is both humorous and heartwarming and while the class didn’t get as in-depth with the discussion as they did with “For Thou Art With Us,” it was fun to just talk about moments we all liked in the story.
Sources for Day 4 — “For Thou Art With Us”
G-Train Podcasts (“The Day The World Came to Town” is Episode 14)
*Note: Today, 9/11/12, was Day 4. Tomorrow is Day 5.
Day 5: A look at how a current U.S. history textbook addresses 9/11 and students will be asked to map out either how they would rewrite the history textbook entry or simply map out how they would teach 9/11 and what sources they would use instead of a history text and why. I’ll probably have them do it in small groups and maybe count it for a small grade.
Sources for Day 5 — A photocopied page from a U.S. History textbook I borrowed from the social studies department. I am not sure whether or not this will be useful to anyone reading this blog or if any of this is proper, innovative teaching–or even good teaching for that matter. And I know I’m kind of patting myself on the back here, but I have been really proud of the way things have come together in the last few days (despite some hiccups) and wanted to share. I’ll leave with a song I might have us listen to and discuss because it’s always interesting to see artistic interpretations of events … and that is “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen: