Arts, Culture & Media

The Challenge of Teaching 9/11

The events of September 11th are being discussed, taught, and commemorated in high school classrooms throughout the nation this week.

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And in many of those classrooms, the students are increasingly too young to have many actual memories of their own of that day's events.

I visited two high school classes in the San Francisco Bay Area to see how teachers are approaching the topic, what the students know and don't know, and how they feel about the events surrounding that day.

The first class I visited was Kent Holubar's western religions elective course with juniors and seniors at Crystal Springs Uplands School in the town of Hillsborough. These students were 5, 6, and 7-years-old on Sept. 11th, 2001. All of them had memories from that day and the event certainly made an impression. The discussion was lively but tempers never flared. In fact, the students approached the topic with a certain emotional distance. Holubar said this didn't happen nine years ago in his classes; the discussions then were much more visceral.

I also visited Steve Coleman's sophomore world history class at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael. These students were 4 and 5-years-old a decade ago. About half of them said they have no memory of that day. Subsequently, Coleman's students were hazier on the details. Coleman said that makes sense to him, after all, this batch of students didn't experience the 9/11 hijackings. Many of them first heard of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda when they were much older.

As a result, Coleman had to tailor his discussion a bit differently than Holubar. In years past, Coleman simply commemorated the events of Sept. 11th in his classroom. He says his students largely guided the discussion. But those days, are pretty well gone. In another year or two, Coleman and other history teachers, will have to change their approach to teaching 9/11 again when all of their students have no memories of that day.

Holubar described it this way regarding how high school students process September 11th: They're at a transition from lived experience to learned experienced.

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    History teacher Steven Coleman (Photo: Jason Margolis)

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    History teacher Kent Holubar at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, CA. (Photo: Jason Margolis)