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Attack anniversary is living history lesson

Educators, publishers grapple with how to best teach youngsters about events surrounding 9/11.

By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2002


Educators, publishers grapple with how to best teach youngsters about events surrounding 9/11.

Last Sept. 12, Lu Ann Curran talked with the 6- and 7-year-olds seated before her.

"Something terrible happened to the United States," the first-grade teacher said. "Does anybody know what happened?"

Some of her students at St. Petersburg's Westgate Elementary School knew about the terrorist attacks the day before. Others did not.

"Will they come here?" one child asked.

Curran was careful not to lie.

"We don't know," she said.

She may have a similar conversation Wednesday, the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Textbook publishers, editors of children's magazines and teachers face the same question: What is the best way to discuss the event with students?

Curran will stand before another set of first-graders Wednesday and let them lead the discussion. She will nod at their true comments and discourage false statements. She plans to focus on how the country bonded rather than what was torn apart.

"My feeling is that we need to teach them that we are proud to be Americans," she said. "You want them to grasp that the world is a positive place."

School district officials agree.

"Emphasize the positive" is the third guideline Pinellas County schools offered for memorials and suggested activities for teachers to use in their classrooms. Pinellas schools also may use a prepackaged morning announcement designed to encourage respect, courage and caring. In Pasco County, there are a set of lesson plans available to teachers. Hillsborough teachers will make the decisions individually about how to address the anniversary of the attacks.

Soon districts will be able to turn to textbooks for some guidance.

At 8:48 a.m., an American Airlines passenger jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, a section in a Holt, Rinehart and Winston textbook begins. The impact was devastating, as though a bomb had struck the 110-story building.

"We wanted to be able to tell the story of what happened in a very straightforward way," said Steven Hayes, executive editor of social studies for the book publisher.

Editors paid a lot of attention to which images would be included in the middle school textbook. They decided not to use photos of the towers on fire. Instead they chose a photo of the Statue of Liberty as smoke clouded downtown Manhattan, a trio of firefighters raising the American flag and a photo showing a man as he passed in front of a NASDAQ billboard relating the daily market downturn.

"We certainly didn't want to include anything that seemed sensational," Hayes said. "That seemed the absolutely wrong thing to do."

Magazines have been addressing the issue for a year.

At Scholastic, a publisher of magazines for every age group, the Sept. 6 issue of Scholastic, designed for students in grades 1-6, focuses on how America has changed in the past year. The design of the page is colorful, playful. Red, white and blue letters spell "Americans" while others, outlined in white, spell "Stand Together."

The same story appears in Junior Scholastic, published for middle school students. The layout is more sophisticated and features a picture of two bright beams of light where the World Trade Center towers once stood. By contrast, Upfront, the magazine for high school students, features a cover story about teenagers who lost their family, their homes and their sense of security.

"It's news for the sake of education," said David Goddy, vice president and publisher of Scholastic Classroom Magazines. The goal, he said, is to foster lively classroom discussion, not mimic or parrot the media.

The decisions about what is appropriate at what age are reflected throughout the magazines. An issue for third-graders doesn't show any burning buildings, but one for fourth-graders does.

Fourth grade is a key developmental year. It's when young people take more of an interest in math and reading, Goddy said. It's also when they "take more interest in the outside world."

Middle school students will receive a more in-depth view of that day's events.

Those who attend Monroe Middle School in Tampa will be presented with a challenge to tolerate and accept other cultures.

Seventh-grade teachers there will create a display for the media center. The display will include large boxes illustrating the traditional style of dress of countries around the world.

"We're not the only people in the world," said Terrasa Rafferty, a seventh-grade teacher at Monroe. "We are a member of the whole world, and we interact with others whether these kids realize it or not."

Wednesday will be a day of reflection at Seven Springs Middle School in New Port Richey in Pasco County. Students there will answer a series of questions about what happened. Then each of the 1,700 students will write about how that day affected them, the country and the world. All the cards will be sealed in a capsule and buried for 10 years.

The event will happen at the beginning of the day and last for about 15 or 20 minutes.

"I think education is a big process," said Paula Lesko, who teaches U.S. history at Seven Springs, "and this is only one aspect of their education."

High school has few restrictions on what can be taught in the corners of a classroom. At Dunedin High School, Alan Kay won't dwell on the images of Sept. 11 and the burning towers. He won't display his emotion or his anger. But he wants his students to understand the horror of that day.

"If you don't really discuss the horror of it all, the terror we felt, then you're telling the students who felt horror and terror that their feelings aren't justified," Kay said.

He will start a discussion and see where his students take it. He will try to put his students in the shoes of an American in the World Trade Center and the shoes of an Arab. From there, they can decide what to make of the event.

"If they have a new opinion, it's one they formed on their own and can defend," he said.

Young people have a lot of questions about the other side of the story.

"What about us frustrates them? Why would they attack civilians rather than the military? What do we do in our country that affects them so that they would want to attack?"

Those are just three questions 17-year-old Jonathan Quigley has about last Sept. 11.

"We've only learned one thing, or one side of every story, and a lot of the time it's just the American side."

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