Schools across the country will mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks next week with memorials, moments of silence, and special lesson plans. Teaching high school students about 9/11 and its aftermath is a lofty task, as most students were not old enough to remember and understand the attacks, and many educators will need to wade through the emotions and stereotypes already woven into the narrative.
"I really don't envy teachers who have to face this enormously complex, massive material and present it in the context of a short lesson or two short lessons," says Clifford Chanin, director of educational programs for the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. "This event obviously is a horrible, stark moment in time, but has very complicated antecedents and it's had very complicated consequences."
[Find out more about resources to help teach 9/11 lessons.]
Among those consequences: a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment and broad stereotypes that students who appear to be of Arab descent have likely faced.
"Images depict Muslim men as being uneducated, dangerous extremists while Muslim women are shown as oppressed," wrote The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates, about post-9/11 stereotypes.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, students perceived to be Muslims have endured verbal and physical bullying. A female student donning a hijab, a traditional Muslim scarf, to cover her hair and neck may be asked if she's a member of the Taliban and male students report facing taunts and physical violence.
[Learn how school culture can contribute to bullying.]
Confronting sterotypes often becomes part of the talking with students about the events and aftermath of September 11, and teachers can help students work through those prejudices.
"Let's face it, if some student says something the teacher finds objectionable or challenging … the classroom is the place where these things need to be taken apart," Chanin says. "The kind of emotional statements people make are very natural to the subject. … Those are moments that teachers are trying to deconstruct in their classrooms and they're trying to provide information that deepens the students' understanding of just what's involved here."
Helping students dig deeper into the complexity of the 9/11 attacks means sticking to the facts and acknowledging when you don't have them, Chanin says, adding that lesson plans and webcasts available on the memorial's website can help teachers work through the material with students.
The facts include who carried out the attacks and why, he says, but they also include who was impacted by them and who responded to the attacks.
"One of the most important aspects in the teaching of this story is about the choices people made, and that doesn't cover just the hijackers," Chanin says. "It's really important to get across the point that in terms of the victims and in terms of the people who responded to the attack … The story of 9/11 places Muslims in every part of the story."
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