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Many of my current sophomores were not alive on the day the world stopped turning. Most of my students are fifteen-years-old — these adolescents are the post-911 generation. They know no other reality than the war on terror. And yet, they know so little about the events of that tragic day.
For example, when asked, many of my students did not know:
- The number of planes hijacked;
- The fact that the Pentagon was also attacked;
- That a plane went down in that Pennsylvania field;
- The difference between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein;
- The location of Iraq and Afghanistan on a world map; and
- When and why the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
To combat my sophomore’s ignorance, I gave them an assignment that I have given every year since that infamous date. Tasked with interviewing friends and family members concerning the events and lessons of 9–11–2001, students used the following questions to participate in action research:
1. Where were you when you heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
2. What do you remember were your feelings and reactions to hearing of the attacks?
3. What was the historical context? (What was happening in the world; in the nation; and in your personal life on that date?)
4. Who did you think was responsible for the attacks (then)? Were you correct?
5. Why do you think the United States was attacked?
6. How do you think life in general, life for Americans, and your life specifically, has changed since the attacks?
7. What are your feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
8. What would be the lesson you would like children in the future to take away from the attacks of September 11, 2001?
Students then analyzed the three responses to each question and wrote their evaluations based on the following inquiries:
- How are the answers similar?
- Were the people you interviewed mostly in agreement, or do they disagree in terms of their feelings and perceptions? Explain how and why.
- What can you learn about history by completing these interviews?
- Did the age of the person you interviewed have any impact on the type of responses you received? Why or why not?
- What do you think these responses tell you about the future of the United States in general, and future United States foreign policy?
The students’ analysis included some remarkable insight into how the events of September 11, 2001, were a dynamic turning point. The student’s action research yielded quotes from their interviewees like:
“I hyperventilate whenever I see an Arab person on an airplane. I know he’s probably not a bad person, but I can’t stop it even if I wanted to.”
When asked to predict future foreign policy, some students responded with statements about xenophobia:
“After hearing these responses, I think the United States will continue to limit the number of foreigners in our country.”
“I think the foreign policy will become airtight, shutting out nearly all foreigners. However, this causes problems because not all foreign people are terrorists. Many are people trying to escape the horrors they face in their country be coming to the United States.”
Many students commented on how the nation was united after the attacks, stating the familiar statement:
“ Our country came together after and made us stronger.”
After discussing their interviews, I began to lay down the facts of that day. I showed the students video of Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings. I played the songs by Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and Bruce Springsteen. Many students acknowledged that they had not previously seen any footage of September 11, 2001.
After teaching the lesson about the history of September 11, 2001, I began to wonder if students across our nation — our post-911 generation — are learning about September 11, 2001? Are we collectively forgetting? Are we failing a generation?
But then I drive home. My phone notifies me that I have a Remind App notification — my youngest daughter’s teacher informs the parents that the class learned about 9/11/2001 and made Patriot paper chains. The message is complete with a picture of adorable eight and nine-year-olds holding their paper chains. When I return home, my oldest daughter tells me that today was the first year a teacher discussed the events of September 11, 2001. Both of my daughters give me their versions of the classroom discussions.
I am hopeful that maybe we are ready to face our history. Perhaps enough time has passed to begin to place the anniversary of September 11, 2001, into our social studies curriculum. I shudder to think about what my grandparents would think about my students not being taught about December 7, 1941. Both my grandfather’s and grandfather-in-laws’ sacrificed for our country and became known as the greatest generation. Furthermore, military service people and their families have been sacrificing for our country since September 11, 2001. Any social studies teacher that ignores this anniversary is doing a disservice to those military families, to the people who died on that September day, and to our post-911 generation.
Furthermore, we owe it to the youngest generation to explain the world they inherit through the lens of a time which has established so many policies, programs, and realities.