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: Read the rest of this entry »