N.J. educators push for curriculum on 9/11 attacks
By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
Students in this year’s incoming high school freshman class were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001.
Unlike so many adults who lived in North Jersey 15 years ago, they do not have a vivid and visceral memory or a personal tragedy tied to that day. They never looked out the car window and saw the skyline with the Twin Towers. They don’t remember the news reports, chaos, fear, crumbling buildings and days of smoke. They don’t remember friends and family overwhelmed by a stunned sadness for weeks and months afterward.
“They have a general sense that this happened, but it’s a historical event to them — it’s something that feels very far away,” said Noah Rauch, director of education programs at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. “They have a sense that the world changed, but they have no sense of what the pre-9/11 world looked like in a way that they knew what that shift actually meant.”
Educators also know that their students Google — and that can send them down a road of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
But in New Jersey, for a variety of reasons, there’s a good chance they won’t learn what really happened that day in school. The state has no mandated 9/11 curriculum, so it’s up to individual districts and teachers to decide if and how that education will be provided. What class? How many lessons? At what age? When dealing with packed academic schedules already and a focus on standardized test preparation, finding time to deal with a sensitive and complex historical event like 9/11 isn’t easy.
Now a growing corps of educators is pushing to correct that, to make that pivotal date in the history of the region and the nation a part of what is routinely taught.
“I don’t think there’s a school system that has said ‘We’re going to focus on this,’ŸŸ” said Colleen Tambuscio, a teacher at New Milford High School, who helped write a 9/11 curriculum through the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in collaboration with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. “I think what has happened in New Jersey — we’ve had moments of silence; we’ve had commemorative acts that were important. But now we should be getting into the educational piece where we’re doing more with the education. That’s the trajectory.”
The multilayered material, combined with personal memories, can be difficult for teachers. The lessons from the curriculum Tambuscio helped write include: political and religious discussions; the history and present state of Islamic extremists; the global impact of the day economically; the ensuing wars; the backlash against Muslims; the change in day-to-day security and privacy implications; the huge personal tragedy; and stories of the first responders, extraordinary acts by ordinary citizens and the mission of service many felt afterward.
“It takes a talented teacher who is really dedicated and committed to students to make this work well,” said Tambuscio. “This is not a math lesson on percents and we’re going to do it and you’re going to have a test. This requires a different level of treatment.”
Of course, age is considered (third-graders, for example, learn about the K9 rescue teams, while 12th-graders discuss methods of prisoner interrogation). The curriculum begins with guidelines before moving on to the age-appropriate plans.
In New York, meanwhile, there’s a more formalized process. The New York City Department of Education’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Learning supports educators teaching the topic of 9/11, distributing a list of high-quality, age-appropriate educational resources in late August or early September every year, according to DOE officials.
“This day holds a very meaningful place in our collective memory, especially here in New York, and it’s imperative that students and teachers have the opportunity to discuss these events in a respectful setting, where they feel safe and supported,” said Eric Contreras, the former executive director of social studies at the DOE and the current principal of Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan, in a prepared statement provided by the DOE.
“And because most public school students today were either not yet born during 9/11 or are too young to remember that day, it’s also crucial that the educational resources we provide approach this topic not just from a historical perspective, but as an occurrence that still shapes current events, and brought New York together. The resource guide that is provided to schools each year gives teachers a variety of options that can meet the needs of students across all grade levels, ensuring educators have the opportunity to discuss this topic at a place and time that is right for their class.”
And since so many North Jersey teachers lived in this area at the time of the attacks and either knew or taught someone who was directly affected on that day, they feel compelled to include it as part of their lesson plans.
“Our students are very geographically and emotionally connected to it, it’s just getting farther and farther away from them in time,” said Christine Kamper, who teaches about 9/11 at Indian Hills High School in Oakland.
Kamper likes to point out things her students take for granted as normal that weren’t normal before that day.
“I always talk to them about airport security and how much airport security has changed,” she said. “They don’t know any other world.”
Students more often than not haven’t been taught about 9/11 in elementary and middle school, and it often isn’t discussed at home, either.
“My parents, for example, don’t really want to rehash it,” said Katie Fernandez Blake, a teacher at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack. She began a one-trimester elective course on 9/11 last year. “That was part of the inspiration for even starting it — a lack of emotional desire to talk about it.”
With no other choice, children do their own research, which can lead to misinformation.
“It got to the point where some of my students were legitimately asking questions about Sept. 11th and the Bush administration’s role in Sept. 11,” said Fernandez Blake. “There was clearly, clearly a very big need to run a class like this.”
It’s not only her students. At the museum, combating the misinformation is a mission of the staff, according to Rauch.
“If you type 9/11 into Google, a lot of crazy things come up,” he said.
The students do not necessarily become conspiracy theorists or have malicious intent in their questions. They have a curiosity about what they have read and what happened.
“So we try to underlie that,” said Rauch. “We start all of our programs for the most part with, ‘This is what happened that day,’ to get everybody on the same page.”
The kids want the education. A few years ago, Kathy Menake, a teacher at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, discussed the possibility of including Sept. 11 with the seniors in her Contemporary Issues through Videoconferencing class.
“It was actually my students who said: ‘Oh, we would love that,’Ÿ” she said. “And they were saying: ‘We don’t know much about it and we really want to know more about it.’Ÿ”
At Bergen County Academies, the same curiosity drove students to take Fernandez Blake’s class last spring.
“I signed up for the 9/11 elective, because my understanding of the event was too limited for my liking,” said Ramsey resident Bea Lee, who graduated from Bergen County Academies last spring and will start at Middlebury College in Vermont in the spring semester. “Ms. Blake’s class made us not only examine 9/11 in a different, unbiased light, but also forced each of us to evaluate what our role is as American citizens — to stand not only by our nation, but by all people within it, in times of tragedy.”
Tambuscio also tries to emphasize the response and social responsibility, in part through the personal stories.
“I want these kids to understand as citizens in a democracy, what is their responsibility to understanding the past and how does the past inform what they see today and what that means to them?” said Tambuscio. “For them, you have to make it meaningful, because it’s history. So by giving them these personal stories and testimonies and service, hopefully it makes them more responsible citizens in a free country.”
The museum is not the only place with tools and tours for educators. The 9/11 Tribute Center is near the museum on Liberty Street and is run by the September 11th Families’ Association. Its goal is to bring together “those who want to learn about 9/11 with those who experienced it.” The Tribute Center offers a school-visits program as well as distance learning and representatives of the center going into schools. The website has a “Teaching 9/11 Toolkit for Educators,” which includes many firsthand accounts.
“Testimony is really an important tool to use in the classroom,” said Tambuscio. “The 9/11 museum and the Tribute Center are two places where a lot of this material exists.”
With the Tribute Center’s help, Menake of Passaic Valley did her first Sept. 11-related videoconference in the fall of 2013 and won an award from the center as one of the teachers “who create exemplary educational projects that help students understand the impact of 9/11.”
“The students ask the survivors and firefighters and first responders questions like ‘How do you wake up every day? How are you able to cope? How are you able to get through all these things?’Ÿ” said Menake. “And the survivors and first responders have always been able to answer them pretty candidly. I think it was important for them to hear that from them, because that’s something I could never relay to them.”
Last year, they spoke with a lawyer who escaped from the buildings.
“He saw the firefighters going up, and he said some things that were really very gut-wrenching about how he felt that day and how he has felt since,” said Menake. “Some students teared up.”
Afterward, she has each student write about the videoconferences.
“In those reflections, I want to see you really have a grasp of the situation not just factually, economically, socially, religiously and emotionally — the totality of the event, whatever the event is. … Unfortunately I think the old history was just chronology and fact. You do try to get away from that if you really want the students to understand the time period.”
These North Jersey teachers want their students to know that Sept. 11 and all history is about more than a timeline and statistics.
Said Tambuscio, “You teach history not to just recite facts, but to give it some kind of meaning.”
The full curriculum can be found and accessed for free at nj.gov/education/holocaust/911. Ancillary lessons to the curriculum are available on the museum website (911memorial.org).