For about the past year, my team and I have been surveying and interviewing US public middle and high-school teachers nationwide about their experiences teaching 9/11. How have they approached teaching today’s students about one of the most painful, important and arguably divisive events in US history? Here’s what they had to say.
1. Most teachers (including history teachers) don’t see teaching about 9/11 as part of their curriculum. According to my survey 84% of teachers who don’t address it give this as their reasoning.
2. When 9/11 is addressed in the classroom, this appears to be only on the anniversary of the attacks. 65% of teachers report addressing 9/11 once a year (on 9/11 itself). Only 10% report addressing 9/11 once a quarter, and 7% once a month.
3. Teachers who have developed units on 9/11 place a priority on critical thinking! According to the interviews my team and I conducted, teachers are involving students in hearing and gathering oral histories, conducting online research, presenting in front of the class, and debating issues that have emerged since 9/11 (like the use of torture, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the prison Guantanamo Bay). Teachers, especially our government and history teachers, design lessons to help students understand 9/11 in historical context, providing information about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Cold War, for example. They also use teaching about 9/11 as a way into teaching about war powers, the Constitution and the branches of government.
4. Teachers find themselves often working to correct misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims, as well as rampant internet rumors about who was “really” behind the events of 9/11.
5. Even over a decade later, over 20% of teachers report that addressing 9/11 in the classroom remains too painful. They need and deserve school-based support.
6. We have an abundance of curriculum on teaching 9/11, but most teachers are not using it. Only 45% of teachers report using curriculum such as from PBS, the New York Times or similar curriculum sources.
7. The teachers I interviewed expressed that they believe passing on the knowledge and memory of the events of 9/11 is a patriotic duty.
8. While teachers overwhelmingly do “feel academically safe” teaching about 9/11, most express real caution when it comes to addressing the controversial political issues that have faced us since 9/11. They fear being perceived as biased or even unprofessional.
9. Only 6% of teachers view their students’ knowledge of what occurred and why on 9/11 as “excellent” or “very good”.
10. About a quarter of teachers responding to my survey express that a “lack of time in the curriculum” is a real barrier to teaching 9/11 the way they’d like. About ¾ of the teachers I interviewed more at length specified that a bureaucratic culture of standardized testing and centralized curriculum was a major barrier. In such a culture, how can teachers foster democratic, empowered and engaged citizens? How can we reclaim the classroom for teachers as public intellectuals?