Teaching 9-11

The mere mention of this topic brings many people up short. Conversations stop. Voices get quieter and people seem to suffer from a rush of memory—powerful, awful, questioning, and even angry responses are provoked by 9-11. Teaching about the events and issue surrounding 9-11 can seem like a trap. You may want to bring it up, but what parts? And to what end? What’s a learning objective for a presentation and conversation about 9-11?

The topics can range as far as any of us can imagine: What were the historical elements of the attacks, from the use of terrorism throughout modern history to the basic events of that day? What was the social impact of the attacks, on families, co-workers, in New York, or in the lives of people grounded for days after the attacks? What were the economic implications? How would you compare (fill-in-the-blank) political issue in the local/country/world before and after Sept. 11th?  What were the management implications of the response and aftermath in New York, from the first responders on the scenes to the rebuilding of the Pentagon and 1 World Trade Center?  You can, with little prompting, come up with a dozen such topics even within the narrowest of discipline-related focuses. Use any prism, from music to microbiology, and you can probably come up with a related discussion.

But a key aspect of teaching about such a horrific incident is the basic data of the event. It’s very likely that much of what your students know of 9-11 is factually confused or just plain wrong. There are many different reasons for this, but the most obvious is the simple passage of time between then and now. Most college freshmen are 18 or 19 years old. How much did those 8 or 9-year-olds see or experience that day? Where were you ten years ago?

The assumption we may have about shared knowledge of a such a dramatic, global event—that everyone has heard and learned the same basic information about 9-11—is a faulty assumption. Conspiracy theories, half-remembered information, portions and pieces of television or movie images, and simple forgetfulness all work against accurate knowledge. It’s worth your time to teach about 9-11 because it’s worth learning more about it.

The attacks of September 11th were covered by the world’s media, and while that may seem to be a boon to teachers it brings with it some fundamental problems. First, presenting information of such a tragic and violent event needs to be done more carefully than other events. There is a psychological barrier between students in a history course seeing grainy black and white images of the dead from Gettysburg or the trenches of World War One. There is no barrier between them and the sights and sounds of planes crashing—planes very similar to ones they have flown on– and the gut-wrenching images of bodies falling from the twin towers. No matter how horrible a historical event may have been, students have a distance between those times and their own experiences. That distance does not exist between today and that day 10 years ago.

Second, there is a problem teaching about 9-11 with which teachers are utterly unfamiliar. There’s too much content. The attacks of Sept. 11th were filmed by cell phones, blogged about, written about, and covered by the global media, and they are being re-reported and covered again today. With so much media and information available, where do you start?

Some of the best, and easiest to navigate, media sites that are available without subscriptions can be linked to by copying and pasting a URL, or used in classrooms with a computer and data projector. These sites offer details without focusing on the more savage and violent imagery of that day. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is one based on publications with editorial staffs who paid attention to the details, and provided clear, fact-checked information.

The Telegraph, a global newspaper based in London, offers many different elements of 9-11 unified by solid writing and clear informational graphics. The website offers interactive graphics of the attacks, a timeline, and coverage of the many different political and social responses to the attacks.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/september-11-attacks/

The New York Times offers a very inclusive series of articles and graphics covering the events and locations of the attacks called The Reckoning.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/us/sept-11-reckoning/viewer.html

One specific site from the Times is on the rebuilding in New York City and the memorial built on the scene:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/08/30/us/sept-11-reckoning/ground-zero.html

The British Broadcasting Company does a similar, but not as comprehensive job recalling the events. The BBC site provides a simple chronology and stories related to the attacks but take care in navigating the site on screen in front of a class because there are some links and page layouts that include current events and news utterly unrelated to the attacks.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14760962

The History Channel’s online site offers excellent interactive and video-based materials covering the events leading up to and during the attacks.

http://www.history.com/interactives/witness-to-911

Notably the History Channel, along with A&E, Lifetime and Biography channels, are simulcasting the incredibly powerful documentary 102 Minutes That Changed America. The documentary consists on clips from personal video recordings, news reports, and cell phone camera footage without narration, in real time. The 102 minutes of the attack unfolds as it happened. (This is heart-rending footage and it captures the shock and trauma exceptionally well. This is not a film for everyone, and viewer should be warned that it’s both graphic and real.)

The documentary will be aired on Sunday morning, 9/11 beginning when the attacks began unfolding, at 8:46 am Eastern time. A teacher’s guide to the documentary can be found here:

http://www.history.com/images/media/pdf/102Minutes.pdf

The Associated Press has a simple but very effective interactive site, Ten years later: A lasting impact on the world, up at: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2011/sept11-10years/index.html

Wikipedia does a fair job of putting the events, major ideas, topics, and individuals involved in one directory-style entry. As with all things in Wikipedia, let the reader beware as items get edited all day, every day. But the main page provides clear information in a useful summary.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9-11

You may well notice that none of the major US network news sites are mentioned here. With few exceptions the ‘anniversary coverage,’ a horrible term, and media provided by the networks (ABS, NBC, and CBS) is unexceptional. There are features and some limited footage of the attacks, but the major networks are currently offering very shallow website media.

CBS: http://www.cbs.com/shows/ten_years_later/

The US Public Broadcasting System has gathered video resources together from several of their own shows here:

http://www.pbs.org/search/?q=9%2F11&mediatype=Video

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