Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11: A Teacher's Perspective

This is my 2nd year as a teacher. Last year, I was a middle school teacher. Although those kids were pretty young on 9/11, they are old enough to know exactly what happened on that fateful day.

My current 5th graders, though, did not.

I've never had to EXPLAIN 9/11 before. Most kids knew that "a lot of people died" that day, or that "the Trade Center fell," or even that "we were attacked." But they didn't know why, or by whom.

As their social studies teacher, I had a special activity today. But first (as I found out during my first class) we had to talk about that day, and why it was such a "big deal". I was walking a thin line. I didn't want to say too much and scare the heck out of them; I couldn't inadvertantly editorialize or put too much of my opinion in it. In short, I couldn't say anything that might come back to bite me in the ass. I had to stick to the facts--and I had to break down those facts so a 10-year-old could understand.

So I told them what happened--about the first plane, the second plane and the third plane all hitting their targets. I talked about how the fourth plane, Flight 93, realized what was happening through phone calls back home and decided to stand up and fight. I talked about how that plane crashed but it crashed in a field instead of their target, which could have been the White House or the Capital Building, and that's why we call those people heroes.

Then I talked about WHY we were talking about 9/11. I tried to make them understand that this is one of the most, if not THE most, historical event of their personal lifetimes. I said, "You know how we're going to study different battles and wars throughout history in this class? Well, a hundred years from now, kids will be learning about 9/11--and YOU lived through it." That seemed to catch their attention. I tried to make them see the importance of it on a larger scale.

THEN, once I had thoroughly depressed the hell out of them, I said, "When I say the word 'hero,' what word do YOU think of?" We brainstormed a list on the board. Each class came up with a great list, too. They had everything from policemen to parents to teachers to greater concepts like "hope" and "inspiration" and "role model." Next, I let them know that they had to think of someone (or a group of people, like policemen) that THEY thought was a hero. They were going to write a letter to the Miss K. Hero Hall of Fame explaining who their hero was and why they should be inducted into the Hall of Fame (aka my bulletin board in the hall).

I told them, "We're ending class this way for a very important reason. As important as it is to remember the events of 9/11, I don't want to focus on the negative. I don't want to focus on the sadness and heartbreak and fear of that day. I don't want to focus on the handful of bad people out there. I want to focus on the good in the world, on all the wonderful, brave, loving, heroic people in the world. And trust me, there's a lot more of them." I thought it was very important, especially after our conversation, which was pretty grown-up for them, to end on the GOOD.

Every class, as I talked about that day, was silent. They were riveted. They asked really good questions. When one kid said "My mom said that they attacked us because of their religion" and another student said, "Man, that's a messed-up religion," I jumped on that as what we teachers refer to as a "teachable moment."

"NO," I told them. "That's the thing. Their religion, the Islamic religion, is NOT bad. Most Muslims don't have those beliefs and were just as horrified on that day as everyone else. This group, the terrorists, they were just crazy. And they got the teachings of that religion all mixed up. They took it too far. But no, that's not how the religion is." (In the middle of that, I had to stop and explain what 'horrified' means. Seriously, their vocabulary blows.)

The whole day, in each class, was like that. They asked great questions. (They asked if the hijackers died and I said yes, they knew they were going to die but they did it because they hated America so much that they were willing to die for their cause. That, of course, brought up the inevitable "Why do they hate us?" question, which led to the whole "religion" comment earlier.) They made the kind of simple, heartfelt observations that only a child can make. They ate it up. They truly were like little sponges. At the end of each class, I actually heard the "awwwwwwwwwwwwwws" when I said it was time to leave.

Today, those kids were really LEARNING.


Renee said...

I'm not sure why, but I got a little misty-eyed reading this post. I guess it's a combo of all the emotions 9/11 brings out and imagining all the riveted kids in your classes, and being so proud of how awesome a teacher you are TO rivet the kids like you did
:-) I vote for you for Teacher of the Year award :-)

Jen said...

It gets even better.

Today, one little girl came in, carrying a box, and she said, "Miss K, I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, and I went home and made this." She turned the box around, and it was a diorama of Ground Zero, with the firemen raising the flag on the rubble (we had talked about that picture and compared it to a Lincoln quote from the Gettysberg Address). And I was just blown away. She did it because she WANTED to, not for a grade or extra credit or ANYTHING. It was just something that struck a chord in her. I noticed she had written something on the side, and she said, "Oh, it's my caption. It says, 'And then the Twin Towers fell and there was a big mess.' "

These kids are really something else. The middle school kids never did things like taht, but already in the first month of school, I've had so many of these 5th graders take a project or something and just blow my MIND. They amaze me every day. I think part of it is that they really are at the age where they DO want to impress their teacher. But more than that, this really is a great group of kids.

LOL and thanks, but I'm far from TOTY. Trust me, it wasn't me, it was just the story.

Renee said...

It WAS you. The story could have been delivered differently and not affected them as much.

And that is SO COOL that she did that! Did you want to cry? :-)

Hey, how did the bedroom map project go?

Jen said...

that bedroom map thing is just one of the examples of how awesome these kids are. some just did the minimum, of course, but SO MANY KIDS just went above and beyond. they did amazing jobs!!! one girl brought in a map that was so GOOD my jaw dropped. they were like little architects. it was kind of funny.

Anna said...

Fascinating! It didn't ocur to me that anyone living today wouldn't know the significance of the day, but so many young students would've been too young to remember the day. This was very eye-opening to me.

It also makes me remember the day in the way I probably should have on Tuesday. I'm rather ashamed to admit that I treated it like any other day. What you taught your kids was wonderful and a good lesson for me too. Thanks :)

Jen said...

In a way, it's not BAD to treat it like any other day. It shows that life goes on. Let's face it--look at Pearl Harbor. A cataclysmic event at the time, but today, how many people stop and observe it--or even remember? As the years go by, it's inevitable that 9/11 will turn into that as well.

Nik said...

Way to get the point across Jen. Donovan and Anthony have asked questions about it and I'm not sure how to answer some of them. It's difficult to talk about and not let the anger come through, so good on ya. I could never have had that convo w/ an entire class of kids.

Jen said...

Well it's okay to let some emotion come through. For example, I told them from MY point of view what that day was like: the first plane hitting and people thinking it was just a horrible, tragic accident....the 2nd plane hitting and the massive confusion and increasing fear....and then the feeling when we realized we were actually under attack. I shared with them those kinds of emotions.
I just had to stay neutral about everything else. =-)

Donovan is such a smart kid, you could really have a great convo with him, I think. He's old enough to be able to have a totally frank discussion with him.