Thursday, September 11, 2014

Essay: Teaching 9/11

This essay was originally written in September, 2011.

Planes crashing, people screaming, people jumping, buildings falling, people running, people crying. Was it a horrifying movie or the end of the world? Everything happened so fast, but a few hours changed the world forever. Although it occurred over ten years ago, I remember everything so vividly. I will never forget the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I heard my mom yell. She was typically a loud person, so waking up to her voice became pretty normal in my household. I didn't think anything was wrong; perhaps there was a bug in her room. With my school building under construction, the beginning of the school year had been delayed, meaning another great summer day supposedly lied ahead. I got out of bed, looked out the window, and noticed a picture-perfect cloudless bright blue sky.  Later in the day, I was scheduled to go over my friend's house. No school, beautiful weather, and hanging out with a friend had the potential to be a perfect day for a nine year old kid like myself. What I thought would be a terrific day turned out to be one of the most devastating days of my life and one of the worst days in American history.

I ventured to my parent's bedroom to see what all the fuss was about. The TV was on, and I immediately saw a tall building with a gaping hole. Before I could ask, my mom said, “There was a bomb in the World Trade Center! They're saying a plane hit it but I don't believe that!” Never hearing of that building before, I wasn't sure who to believe: my mom or the news? If it was indeed a plane, maybe it was an accident. Speculating about the crash, the news broadcast talked to an eyewitness on the telephone. The caller explained a giant fireball that followed an explosion, but she paused then screamed, “Here comes another plane! Oh my gosh, another plane!” Live on television, I watched in dismay as a second plane struck the second tower. My mom freaked out and started calling family and close friends. Though extremely confused, I knew something bad took place.

The scene on the television was truly unreal as it was unlike anything I had ever seen, including movies. Part of the building remained on fire while smoke poured out of the building and debris flew everywhere. From certain camera angles, my mom noticed that people were jumping out of the one-hundred story towers. Viewing the real-life graphic footage of this horrific scene terrified me. We all remained glued to the TV despite being completely stunned. A few moments after the second plane hit, my mom brought me and my sister to my friend's house, but as soon as we got there things escalated becoming more terrifying.

We arrived at my friend's house and they had the television on too, following the news story as it occurred. Normally at my friend's house, we would find some kind of activity, but this was different; we just wanted to watch TV and try to make sense of the craziness. A few minutes after arriving, the news reported that another plane struck the Pentagon in Washington D.C. With all these crashes, I no longer felt safe. What if a plane whammed into my house? What if I knew somebody who was harmed? Worried, I still watched since nobody pulled me away from the TV. A reporter came on the scene, but all of a sudden she ducked behind a car. A gigantic gray blob of dust rolled by, looking as if it erased the world. The first tower collapsed, falling straight down as if it were being pushed. Once the first one went down, I knew it was only a matter of time before the second building would do the same. Moments later, I watched the second tower collapse as people ran frantically trying to avoid the dust cloud and debris. Clusters of people were shown evacuating the city, walking – some barefoot – over a bridge.  

As the day went on, we continued to watch the news and were later notified that another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. As each event occurred, I developed a weird feeling inside me.  Even though I did not know anybody who was affected, I didn't feel right. I was upset and the fact that my parents kept mentioning that people were dying didn't help. Since I saw everything on TV, I knew everything that had happened, but at the same time I didn't understand why. I was only nine, so what progressed in front of my eyes was puzzling. Broadcasters kept repeating the word “terrorists,” but I didn't understand what that meant. When “attack” was used, I realized that it meant somebody tried to hurt the United States. I had so many questions, such as “who did this?” and “why did they do it?”, but for some unknown reason, nobody was willing to explain it to me.

Towards the end of September, it was time to go back to school and I was ready to start fourth grade. I assumed our class would discuss the destruction and answer my questions, but the year went by without any talk or clarification of the tragedy.  Middle school flew by without mentions of it. When high school approached, 9/11 seemed like forever ago as nobody ever talked about September 11th; people only acknowledged it on the anniversary. Every year on the anniversary our school had a moment of silence, but that was the only 9/11-related thing ever mentioned at my school. Not once did a teacher take a day aside and recount memories or teach about that crisis. Perhaps teachers figured that since we lived through it we knew everything about September 11th, even though that was not nearly the case.

Eleventh grade was the only time my class came close to discussing 9/11. My teacher was shocked and embarrassed about how little high school students knew of 9/11 and its related topics. Cathy Leitch, who now teaches a 9/11 elective in St. Louis, would agree with my teacher: “It became apparent that students had some idea of what happened, but really didn't have as clear an understanding as we would have liked. It’s not just the event, but all the issues surrounding it” (Robelen). My teacher promised my class that we would learn about 9/11 at the end of the year if time permitted, but the year finished before we had the chance. Many students, myself included, completed high school and entered college without a clear understanding of 9/11.

Apparently, not teaching September 11th is a common theme as most schools across the country do not take any time to discuss 9/11 or its related issues, especially since it is not included in the government's required curriculum (Sands). Although most schools fail to mention 9/11, it is not completely ignored. Unlike the school I attended, 9/11 is taught in some schools, but it is not the centerpiece of attention, nor receives a large amount of focus. In addition to outdated curriculums leaving 9/11 excluded, courses are so meticulously planned that teachers despise anything that disrupts it. Many teachers teach to the test, meaning they only care about certain requirements so that students can pass standardized tests. Some teachers are more concerned with keeping their jobs than their student's learning, but that is another debate. 9/11 may not appear on standardized tests, but that does not mean it is insignificant. As Diana Hess explained in “9/11 in the Curriculum: A Retrospective,” “even the most intricately planned curriculum should take a back seat to the more important goal of helping students understand an event of such great magnitude” (176). Avoiding history topics is like saying it never happened, and sometimes what is not taught is just as important as what is taught (Romanowski 290). Teachers need to support teaching 9/11 because students lack the knowledge of an important recent event.

To be honest, 9/11 did not impact my life right away. In 2001, I was affected by being scared, sad, and upset, but as time passed 9/11 was acknowledged less, and in a sense forgotten. With American pride everywhere, the country had a brief period of extreme patriotism, but that disintegrated. One day changed the world forever -- changed policies, increased security, etc. -- but I didn't immediately take notice. Life went on, and despite my questions not being answered, 9/11 turned into a thing of the past.  Watching a film years later, I learned how selfish that thought was.

On the eighth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I flipped around the television channels and came across a documentary on the History Channel. Although historical documentaries do not normally interest me, I stopped flicking the channels, and to this day I still do not know why I paused. Perhaps the sight of a burning building caught my attention by instantly bringing back bad memories. Sure enough the program was a video on 9/11. Just like that exact day eight years ago, I couldn't change the channel. Realizing that I wasn't going to learn about 9/11 in school, I found myself interested in finding details about September 11th. Coming to the conclusion that I would have to discover answers myself, I figured I should learn on my own.

The next program on the History Channel, entitled 102 Minutes that Changed America, featured footage captured by people who witnessed the terrorists attacks first hand, some who were blocks away from the World Trade Centers. Feeling like I was right there reliving that day, the film put me in somebody else's shoes – somebody closer to the action – I found myself tearing up. I never cried during a television program, but this was an exception because it was real and brought back negative emotions. The film inspired me to research more about 9/11, and I later found myself reading 9/11-related articles on the Internet and watching 9/11 footage. For some reason, current or recent events appealed more interesting to me than something that occurred decades ago. Wanting to increase my knowledge on history that I lived through, I discovered that I was not the only person neglected of being taught 9/11 and wanted to learn more. “I've always been so confused – it's still such a blur. I really want to know the truth,” high school student Lyndia Free told the Los Angeles Times when asked about 9/11 (Watanabe).

My self-teaching of 9/11 really affected me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the heroes and a new dimension of sadness for those who were killed or lost loved ones. The problem was that I learned everything on my own, which frustrated me since 9/11 was a key turning point in history. My teachers could have easily taken the time to show a film like 102 Minutes that Changed America, but they never did. They wouldn't even take five minutes to talk about 9/11. As an aspiring teacher, I do not want my future students to learn big, important topics on their own. Self-learning can be good in that it sparks interest, but it can lead to more confusion. September 11, 2001 is more than just a detrimental day; it shaped the world to be what it is today. It is very important to have 9/11 in the school curriculum, as Chester Finn stated. “It's right to teach about September 11th because it was one of the most defining events of our age, of our nation's history and of these children's lives” (Hess 175). Students need to know about 9/11 just like they need to know about World War II and other historical events. I want to make sure that my students learn about the attacks in the classroom, but I also want to find an effective way of doing so.

Teaching 9/11 in school is not an easy task. Since it is a controversial topic, teachers are presented with a challenge when it comes to discussing and teaching September 11, 2001. Not only is it emotional for students, but it is emotional for the teachers as well. Since it is not a required subject, there is no set way to teach 9/11. Kathleen Foster, a journalist for FOX News, reported that since “teachers are not legally required to follow [9/11 lesson plans] or even teach it all,” educators must decide if they want to teach 9/11 or ignore it (2011). If a teacher decides to discuss this sensitive topic, many debates, issues, and questions are raised. 9/11 may be avoided for “social-emotional, cultural, religious, and political” reasons (Ojalvo) because of the terrorist's culture and religious beliefs that can create stereotypes towards Muslim-Americans. There are many different reasons why teachers need to be very careful when teaching 9/11, and I wanted to find the best method to approaching it.

Teaching 9/11 became a difficult task the moment the first plane hit. Although I was one of the few exceptions, most students were already in school. Teachers were slowly alerted and some schools were dismissed while others finished out the day. For those who remained in school, teachers were forced to react to the events, but most were unprepared. Beverly Ray noted in “Engaging 9/11 as a Learning Event: Teacher's Perspectives Examined” that September 11th “magnified teachers' lack of preparedness. Many educators rushed to turn on televisions only to realize that students were becoming traumatized by images of the destruction. Others simply chose to continue with the day's lesson” (58). Ray explained that there were no immediate teaching references that teachers could turn to as the tragedy evolved. Now, there are plenty of resources and lesson plans available in textbooks or online. In the past, students knew about this tragic day because they lived through it. However, even if they were old enough to understand they were likely trapped in school unable to find out exactly what was happening in the world.  

Students old enough to remember September 11, 2001 have grown up, and current students are either too young to remember 9/11 or they were born after it. An estimated one-fifth of Americans either have no memory of 9/11 or were born after it (Toppo). Therefore, they barely know anything about one of the most horrible days in the United States of America, which is a shame. In an article featured in the Vancouver Sun, Andrea Sands expressed:

While 9/11 still evokes powerful memories for many of us, the event has become, in essence, a piece of history.  Most teens in junior high and high school don't remember that day, so their knowledge is limited to what they've been taught in school, learned from their parents and picked up on the Internet.

9/11 knowledge within young people is diminishing. Eventually, students will have no memories of the events. Most students may know what happened, but no more than that. Middle school social studies teacher Stephen Franklin said that current students “know airplanes flew into buildings and 'the terrorist' want to kill us, but they don't know why or who they are” (Watanabe).  It's rare that students know the consequences or why it happened, let alone what happened. Some know that 9/11 is important, but are unclear why. Not learning about 9/11 will cause confusion in the future since students have no recollection of it. Even if a student researches online, it is not guaranteed that the information is accurate because many sources are unreliable. To many students, 9/11 seems like ancient history. Little do they know that it shaped the world to be what it is today, and what it will be in the future.

The question is, why isn’t September 11, 2001 taught in schools? Robert Watterson answers this question in Erik Robelen's article “9/11 Leaves Small Imprint on Curricula.” According to Watterson, the “three leading factors” for avoiding 9/11 in schools are “inadequate time in an already crowded curriculum, teacher's feelings of being ill-prepared to prove the complex issues, and fear among some teachers and administration of taking on matters with the potential to generate classroom conflict and upset parents” (2011). In her New York Times blog, Holly Ojalvo mentions how different teachers approach 9/11:

Many teachers address 9/11 as part of the United States history, while others want to commemorate the anniversary with their students.  And there are teachers out there who are hesitating, wondering how to teach about 9/11 in an appropriate and meaningful way, or whether to mention at all.  

In general, teachers lack “time, expertise, resources – and in some cases, the nerve – to tackle the huge, complex and controversial subject in a meaningful way” (Watanabe). Others fear of giving inaccurate facts or saying the wrong thing (Foster).

Because 9/11 can be linked to sensitive topics like politics, war, and religion, teachers tend to shy away from it. “Schools are cautious in how they approach topics such as 9/11, which can be hot-button issues that directly affect the lives of some students” (Sands).  Graphic images and violent videos from September 11th can be very disturbing, according to Beverley Ray.  “Teachers and students can become paralyzed by the overwhelming destruction and emotional trauma brought on by disaster” (59). The images are heartbreaking, and many are depressing. Even simple descriptions of what occurred turn people's stomachs. If 9/11-related videos are searched on YouTube, many will have a “not for children” warning. Documentaries or other 9/11 footage are labeled “viewer discretion advised.”  I didn't have any of these warnings in 2001 – nobody did. Everybody watched it unfold, no matter how gruesome. Students need visual support of images and videos to sense the true devastation. It is impossible to get the same interpretation by hearing or reading about it. The media played a large role in 9/11 in that they covered it live and provided real time sources; using media helps teach and understand it.

When showing 9/11 footage today, age certainly plays a role, but there were no filters on that second Tuesday in September ten years ago. Everybody, young and old, became exposed to the chaos. As a nine year old watching the attacks live, it scared me. I do not think my parents should have hid the news from me; it was happening right then and there, so it was important for me to see what was going on in the world at the time. Today, what is shown should be determined by age and grade level as teachers do not want to give elementary school children nightmares. Also, young students are unable to grasp the events or its meaning (Foster). On the other hand, older students in middle school or high school need to see those videos and images in order to help understand the attacks. Learning about 9/11 without actually seeing it is difficult; it needs to be seen in order to believe. The concept of age makes sense when compared to other violent historical events. I was not taught subjects like the Holocaust until at least middle school, if not later. In eleventh grade, my class was shown the actual footage of John F. Kennedy getting shot in the head. If this is allowed to be shown in high school, then so should 9/11 footage.  

Although the horrific information is important, more attention is put on the heroes. In “Teaching the Wrong Lessons on 9/11,” Michelle Malkin makes a terrific counterargument about how teachers of young students “watered down” stories about September 11th. “Too many teachers refuse to show and tell who the perpetrators of 9/11 were and who their heirs are today” (2011). Malkin says that teachers are focusing too much on the “touchy-feely” stories and leave out the bad:

Apparently, the youngsters weren't ready to learn even the most basic information about the evil masterminds of Islamic terror... Yet many of the same protectors of fragile elementary-school pupils can't wait to teach them all the ins and outs of condoms, cross-dressers and crack additions.  Waiting until students are aged appropriately is key, but that does not mean a topic like 9/11 should be ignored until high school. Elementary school teachers can discuss the heroes of 9/11 and focus on patriotism, but can also give some basic information that won't completely traumatize students. Malkin adds that a new curriculum “advises teachers to avoid graphic details or dramatizing the destruction wrought by the 9/11 hijackers, and instead focus students' attention on broadly defined intolerance and hurtful words” (2011). The importance of heroes and victims should be commemorated, but Malkin is right in that some of the horrific images are needed to help understand 9/11. Students need to understand how victims felt; it is part of the history that shouldn't be forgotten.

Parents always get involved in schools, whether for the better or the worse. “Parents, the world around, want safety and security and a quality education for their children,” said teacher, Matt Rickey (Waterson). Because of its traumatizing nature, it can be understood that teaching 9/11 would not fly too well with some parents. That theory is actually incorrect, according to Kathleen Foster. “Parents are largely supportive if teaching 9/11 in schools. They just want to make sure their kids are old enough to handle it” (2011). Even my own parents talked freely about 9/11. There are always going to parents who do not give their children permission to watch or do certain things in school, but they are in minority.

Regardless of the subject, time limits present a problematic factor in teaching. Due to a variety of reasons, lessons are sometimes shorter than planned, while others may take longer. Teresa Watanabe states that teachers fault the “lack of time” as she gave a common scenario: “Times up. The annual lesson about 9/11 is over. And so it goes in many classrooms around the country. A decade after the Sept. 11 attacks transformed America in so many ways, numerous students say they still know very little about those events” (2011). Similar to my eleventh grade history class, many schools simply run out time in the year and cannot fit it into the curriculum; they must cover required materials first. “With the curriculum so filled, it's hard to go into any great depth on any one particular topic,” said social studies teacher Kurt Waters (Robelen).

Greg Toppo blames the problem of short 9/11 teachings on “bad timing.” In “Teaching 9/11 history to students too young to remember,” he claims that because the anniversary of the attacks is at the beginning of the school year, “many teachers shrink from presenting the accounts of the attacks in detail, especially to young children, in fear they'll terrify students before they earn their trust” (2011). Due to the magnitude of the topic, teachers shouldn't limit teaching 9/11 to September only.  Anniversaries of the attacks make 9/11 more current, but because of the great impact these events had, it should be taught during any time of the year.  People aren't going to forget when 9/11 happened – the date's in its name. Most people have memorized Pearl Harbor's date of December 7, 1941, but that does not mean it was only taught in December. Most – if not all – of my history teachers stressed that dates aren't important to remember, but instead what actually happened is the most important. Huge historical events are taught at any time during the school year; they are not limited to a specific time frame.

Textbooks are a necessary teaching tool used for almost every class, especially when it comes to history. Frances FitzGerald, who was quoted in “What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: Textbook Omissions and 9/11,” claimed that “history textbooks are written not to examine history, but rather to instruct students about what they should and should not know about their country” (Romanowski 290). The author of that article, Michael Romanowski, puts it into his own words: “American history textbooks are not just teaching tools. They are important artifacts of culture, because they reflect a national consensus regarding cultural knowledge and values that members of society want transmitted to their children” (290). My American history text book was fairly outdated, but it was still published after September 11, 2001 and did not have much 9/11 coverage. This is common in history textbooks across the country. Diana Hess told Erik Robelen:
[History and government textbooks] did have coverage of 9/11, but a lot of it was really cursory and lacked the specific detail you would see in the rest of the text on other things, and we saw that as bizarre. … For the most part, they didn't want to engage kids in any kind of controversy about 9/11.

Over fifty-percent of American history textbooks do not specifically explain what exactly happened, who was involved, or why 9/11 occurred (Hess 177).  These are important questions that need to be answered. Leaving 9/11 out of textbooks – or not teaching it for that matter – could compare to censorship like it was being hidden. It could be linked to media censorship in China in which the Tiananmen Square Massacre cannot be searched on the Internet. Teachers or textbooks should not be avoiding 9/11; they should be informing about it.

Even if textbooks feature 9/11-related items, they do not tell the full story. In order to realize how terrifying that day was, students need to watch real life footage and step into the shoes of an eyewitness or someone who experienced it firsthand. Pictures in textbooks aren't remotely close to those in the media. Another problem with textbooks is that they are strictly fact-given, excluding any moral analysis or ethical issues (Romanowski 294), which are an important issue surrounding 9/11. In order to truly understand 9/11, points about morality and ethical issues must be made. According to Diana Hess, textbooks do not help students understand terrorist attacks. Educators need to use current resources, such as “heavy stream of audio, video, long- and short-form journalism, and even in-person presentations, to adequately teach a historical event that remains current” (Goodale). Textbooks cannot be relied on when teaching 9/11. “If resources are limited to textbooks, students can leave the classroom with little understanding of why the United States was attacked” (Romanowski 292). Textbooks fail to answer meaningful questions from morality to gruesome details that are found elsewhere.

In many cases, media is used to help teach 9/11, but guest speakers are also appropriate. “Teachers should provide activities that allow students to explore different perspectives when studying historical events” (Romanowski 295). A great way to get another perspective is by inviting a guest speaker. By telling experiences or delivering information, guest speakers give students a new point of view. Story telling has always been a part of history as stories are passed down through generations. Guest speakers can vary from people who were in New York at the time or somebody like me who watched everything unfold on TV. “Students tend to feel more connected to individuals when they both see and hear their stories. Personal stories make the events seem more direct and emotional than simple historical records” (Torres). By relating to speakers, it makes learning more valuable.

There are other resolutions for teaching September 11, 2001. Teaching 9/11 presents different perspectives which create challenges and opportunities. Several teachers say that “topics surrounding 9/11 would require extensive training” (Watanabe) and “considerable preparation and support,” but there are many resources available (Robelen). Recently, New Jersey “unveiled a voluntary 9/11 curriculum that covers such topics as the historical context of terrorism, the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, and U.S debated over security vs. civil liberties” (Robelen). These curriculums help teacher better prepare, and could help them if there is ever future forms of terrorism. In addition, “teachers have numerous opportunities to weave 9/11 into class discussions” (Sands). With older students, critical thinking and looking deeply into the subject will help understand 9/11 and history in general. “Students must make personal, intellectual, and emotional connections with historical or contemporary events before them,” and learning about 9/11 will enable them to do so, according to Amy Scullane's article “Student Reactions to 9/11: Then and Now” (57).  By discussing 9/11, students may discover their own personal beliefs and opinions on certain topics, such as current war with Iraq.

Students may claim to know what happened on 9/11, but that does not mean they fully comprehend it.  Although recommendations have been made to teach 9/11, it still remains somewhat untaught. This needs to change so that 9/11 is inserted into classrooms as a major lesson, rather than a one-day gig.  With potentially new curriculums like the one in New Jersey, 9/11 may be referenced more in classrooms, as it should be. These curriculums will give teachers more confidence in teaching such controversial subjects. Good, civic educations include components of essential controversial topics (Haas). By studying 9/11 and its related topics, students actually end up learning more about other topics as well.  By investigating 9/11, students not only benefit from critical learning strategies, but more importantly understand how and why history is constructed (Ojavlo). Lisa Torres puts it perfectly in “Integrating 9/11 throughout the Study of American History and Beyond”:  

Learning from history is supposed to assist successive generations from making the same mistakes, but teaching history offers more than that.  It provides an opportunity to connect students to their own community and the world community.  September 11th is an event that has defined a generation, connected a national grief, and required students to reexamine personal bias, government, politics, and national diversity.   Teaching 9/11 as part of history courses or infused into any curriculum ensure that the lessons – from the people and their deeds – are not lost to posterity but continue on in determining who Americans are and the type of citizens our children become.

For those being taught 9/11 in school today or in the future, I can say that I am truly jealous. Those students are able to expand their knowledge on a subject that I was neglected of learning. Although I acquired knowledge on my own, I still have 9/11 questions. I may have lived through and experienced a part of history, but I do not know much beyond what I saw and heard. 9/11 should not be limited to just history, as it can be implemented into any subject.  Teachers “should not be afraid to let their kids know that they don't have all the answers,” but research, media devices, and teaching curriculums will help explain the terrorist attacks (Waterson 169). In the future, I not only want to share my memories, but I also hope to use some of these teaching strategies that I uncovered so I can give my students the greatest understanding of 9/11. As the saying goes, history repeats itself. If this is ignored, how are we certain that the future is safe? In a world where the Twin Towers no longer stand, students are entering school with less and less knowledge of the 9/11, as it drifts away into old history. 9/11 was more than a day where planes crashed and buildings fell, but instead gave everybody appreciation for the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis. September 11th changed America and united a country. It is now in teacher's hands to inform about an American tragedy, and show why we will never forget September 11, 2001.

Works Cited (MLA)
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Torres, Lisa. "Integrating 9/11 throughout the Study of American History and Beyond." Social     Studies 102.4 (2011): 158-159. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 22 Sept. 2011.
Watanabe, Teresa. "Teaching Students about 9/11 Presents Challenges." Los Angeles Times 10 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Sept. 2011. < 20110911,0,7084584.story>.
Waterson, Robert A., and Matt Rickey. "9/11: Maintaining Relevance for the Classroom Student." Social Studies 102.4 (2011): 167-172. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 Sept. 2011.

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