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Finding lessons in rubble of tragedy

County teachers recognize the opportunity to use Sept. 11 as a springboard for education. Students have responded.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


County teachers recognize the opportunity to use Sept. 11 as a springboard for education. Students have responded.

INVERNESS -- Harold Skidmore was in school when the horrifying news came. Airplanes had attacked the nation, snuffing out lives, destroying property and crippling America's sense of safety and well-being.

Skidmore immediately wanted to help. Even now, when time has given him some perspective on the tragedy, he still becomes emotional.

"He feels proud to be an American," according to his granddaughter, Christina Skidmore. "It still is emotional. . . . When I interviewed him, he cried and it seemed hard for him to talk about."

Skidmore is 76. He lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like others of his generation, he will never forget.

Likewise, his 15-year-old granddaughter won't forget the day last year when she was in school, in gym class, and a tragedy for her generation took place -- the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"At first I didn't understand what happened. As I listened to the news report go on, I began to understand more. My first reaction was shock that this could happen to us, America," Christina wrote in a report for her Lecanto High School social studies class.

For her teacher, Bill Hartley, Sept. 11 was more than the most significant national historical event he has seen. It became the most effective tool he has to teach Christina and her classmates about social studies, history and related topics.

Hartley assigned his students to write about their feelings on Sept. 11 and then interview family and friends who lived through President John F. Kennedy's assassination and Pearl Harbor.

This week, as the nation remembers Sept. 11, the Citrus County schools will do their share. A variety of activities, memorials and services are planned. One school is releasing doves; at another, students are writing military men and women. Many students will wear red, white and blue on Wednesday.

But Sept. 11 was part of the curriculum before this anniversary and will be long after the day has passed. From kindergarten children who learn about heroes to middle school students studying Middle Eastern countries to high school students reflecting in prose, the terrorist attacks have become a fixture in education.

Hartley said the attacks transfixed students immediately.

"The whole rest of the school year, in government and American history classes, the discussion kept creeping back so that sooner or later it would be the tragedy," Hartley said. "I think it has been much easier to keep these kids focused. . . . Usually it's hard for kids to grasp how linear history is and that things that happen are related to other things."

A new interest overseas; an emphasis on heroism

The word for the day was "apparatus."

Perhaps it was a big word for Gail Bockiaro's third-graders at Inverness Primary School. But at least they had an excellent visual image.

Fully dressed in his firefighting gear, Charles Poliseno, the county's public safety director, was showing students the kind of emergency apparatus emergency workers would have worn as they visited the sites where planes crashed in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

"He talked about how people came to help," Bockiaro explained.

Then she asked her students to write about what freedom means to them. They expressed themselves and practiced writing skills they needed to succeed in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"In our school system curriculum we're finding there is a greater awareness of and a greater focus on that part of the world where these things are happening," said Judy Johnson, assistant principal at Crystal River Middle School. "There has also been a shift in vocabulary. Students are asking what is terrorism and who are terrorists. . . . Before, you heard much more about dictators and communism."

At Inverness Primary, teachers use the American Heroes curriculum introduced to the district by Ferd and Beverly Sebastian of the National Greyhound Foundation.

"We're teaching kids how to be heroes to one another," said Sandy Cross, a first-grade teacher.

She asks her students about how a dog or a family could be a hero, or how they could be a hero. She reads them stories and asks students to identify the hero. By the end of the past school year, Cross said the children interrupted discussions to identify heroes without being asked.

"If we talk about it, we talk about the positive point that these people are heroes," Cross said. "It is important to tell the kids that they're living through history. You've got to tell them that . . . but you have to do it in a way they understand."

One way to accomplish that: guest speakers. This year, the plan is to bring in Korean War veterans to tell about their experiences.

"They don't just talk about guns and killing," Cross said. They also talk about what wives had to do at home when their husbands went to war. They talk about the jobs they took over, the tasks of keeping up the morale of the servicemen. "It makes them realize how do we support people, and they get it," she said. "We stay away from the killing."

Inverness Primary principal Terry Charles said even young students can grasp that the attacks have had a significant effect on the world.

"We have put 9/11 in the context of American history and social events of our times," she said. "It would be narrow to perceive it as a single event. Through education and instruction we help the youngsters to put it in the context of everything else that has happened in history."

Taking photos, giving help, looking for both sides

How would a student illustrate what it means to be in America using photographs he or she took throughout Citrus County?

Citrus Springs Elementary School soon will find out. Principal Lane Vick, an amateur photographer, is teaching fifth-graders the technical aspects of taking good pictures this week.

When the lesson is done, students will receive disposable cameras, board a bus and scour Citrus for good shots.

"Different things show America and symbolize the beauty of life," Vick said. "We don't want to dwell on the tragedy . . . but if we can use it for something good, we do it."

Pleasant Grove Elementary School is taking that further.

As part of its push to provide character education, the school is asking each student to submit two specific ways they intend to be a hero in their classroom, school, family or community.

When the school year ends, principal Patrick Simon will reward the children with hero pins.

"We want our children to take action," he said.

Crystal River High School language arts teacher Charla Bauer has used Sept. 11 for deeper messages.

For weeks last year, her students researched issues ranging from euthanasia to genetic engineering. They had to learn everything they could because they didn't know which side of an issue they would have to argue until shortly before a debate on the topic began.

"It taught them how to research these issues from both sides," she said. That can be a critical skill when trying to understand others' motivations.

"We wanted them to understand that there are multiple perspectives in many of these issues, including 9/11," Bauer said.

In another classroom project, students investigated the tragic events at Rosewood, where an African-American community was nearly wiped out. The students did research and even visited the Rosewood site in Levy County with a survivor.

"They analyzed cultural conflicts . . . we talked about how to understand and work peaceably through our conflicts," Bauer said.

She adds the perspective of history. As the Rosewood massacre took place, across the globe another cultural genocide grew roots as Adolf Hitler took his first public office.

Teaching those lessons and learning more about the human motivations that drive history is a critical task.

"Hopefully this all builds a foundation so that another 9/11 never happens again," Bauer said.

Memory as history, linking students and the past

Hartley, at Lecanto High School, challenges his students to gain a personal sense of history.

What historically significant events do they remember? The Challenger explosion? Operation Desert Storm?

"I try to get across to them the importance of their personal memories as history," Hartley said. "I tell them we must take responsibility for our own family history."

Hartley knows the lesson well. He lost his father in the Vietnam War and remembers the bereavement team at his front door, there to deliver the grim news. Two years later, on his 10th birthday, Hartley was in Memphis. It was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Those direct links to historical moments helped shape his interest in history and his devotion to making historical events come alive for his students. But he knows the lesson can be difficult.

"History affects us and we're always trying to get that across to the kids," Hartley said. He said when he was their age, "I was a punk. I had two great-grandmothers who had relatives alive during the Civil War..

"I'd almost give bone marrow now to have an hour with each of them and a video camera. That's the way history matters," he said. "So I tell them that, in the blink of an eye, your children will be coming up to you with a history book with pictures of those twin towers and they'll ask you where you were."

Another of Hartley's students, Sabrina Smith, wrote that finding the words to describe her feelings about 9/11 is difficult.

"I know when I have children, they will come to me with their history books and questions and ask me about this time. And I will not recognize what it is they read to me because I will read mere words, facts glossed over for young minds to absorb," she wrote.

"Perhaps it was a decisive American victory, perhaps a bitter American defeat. Heavens, shall we erect a memorial? After all, these are just statistics, just names in a history book.

"I begin to understand the look my grandfather gets when I speak with him about history.

"It is a look I will wear someday."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

ESSAY EXCERPTS

LECANTO -- Lecanto High social studies department chairman Bill Hartley asked some of his students to reflect on the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Here are some excerpts:

* * *

"I'll never forget rushing home and turning on the TV only to see that the Twin Towers no longer existed. Thousands of lives were lost. Millions of people worldwide were affected. It jerked the carpet right out from under my feet. No longer are we the Big Bad Invincible Americans. We were vulnerable. Although my day-to-day life has pressed on, not a day goes by that I do not think about this ill-fated day." -- Justin Quinn

* * *

"As a nation, everyone lost something but overall our nation gained unity." -- Lisa Arnold

* * *

"By God, I am offended. I am offended that this could happen. I am offended that still, despite everything, despite the rallying cries, the cries for justice and equality and fairness, that the respect of human life given to us by God himself could be so defaced.

"We as a country have suffered, that is true. But no sooner has the dust cleared than we turn on one another once more. People have been killed in this country because of the color of their skin and their religion, because they 'look like terrorists,' because there are ignorant people out there.

"In some ways, I am glad that all of this happened. While the masses remain content with their close-minded stupidity, some have awakened. Some realize that it can't continue this way. And some realize that we should all help each other." -- Sabrina Smith

* * *

"I think this will be something everyone from my generation will never be able to forget. This can only make us stronger and bring us together, closer as a nation. I think the events that occurred on September 11 have changed me for a lifetime. I know now not to take life for granted and appreciate everything life has to offer me." -- Heather Armstrong

* * *

"Sitting at my desk while watching a geographical landmark turn into a historical landmark, I felt so many emotions all at once and asked myself, 'Why would anyone do such a thing to innocent people?' It hurt me to see the plane hit the building in replay after replay. My friends and I reflected on what a travesty it was. . . . One thing that seems a little weird is the fact that I'm still a teenager and got to witness history in the making. I always thought that war was a way of the past but then again, history is made every day and the world will still go around." -- Cassandra Zamboli

* * *

"I couldn't believe anyone could do something this awful. But truth be told the actuality didn't hit me till I talked to my uncle. He is a firefighter in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and also helped with cleanup. He said the destruction was indescribable and he will always have nightmares of the horrible scene.

"During that conversation I began to ponder why such a devastating event must occur for our nation to unite. Granted, on occasions such as the Fourth of July our country shows its patriotism but what about the other 364 days? After 9/11 you couldn't find an American flag to purchase anywhere or turn on the radio without hearing someone singing or talking about how great America is. But why did this realization have to come about through something so horrible?" -- Mary Ann Emberley

* * *

"The event that took place will always be remembered and will remind us all where we are from. I hope that this failed attempt to destroy America shows that we are always united through thick and thin as the United States of America." -- Andrew Norton

* * *

"I'm not sure where we will be 10 years from now. I hope, though, that our nation and the world will have a better understanding of what hate can do. I also hope that we will be unified and strengthened by this tragedy and will be better prepared to handle similar situations in the future." -- Ashley Stewart

* * *

"September 11 has really had an effect on the U.S. and on me as a person. I feel that America was walking around with an attitude that nothing can hurt us, that we were invincible but all that changed on that horrible day. Basically 9/11 was a major reality check. America really opened their eyes and realized that even though we are such a powerful nation, bad things can happen to such a great nation." -- Brittany Tyler

* * *

"I have followed the steps my government has taken and most importantly I have realized how, though not directly but indirectly, I am affected. I have seen the freedoms which we cherish and which our Founding Fathers fought so hard to attain seriously threatened and jeopardized by a government who apparently believes that the Constitution is more of an inconvenience than a safeguard. I have seen machine-gun-armed soldiers patrolling our airports. I have watched television shocked to learn that our government has arrested American citizens without charges and without affording them their due process rights which I thought we guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. Unfortunately we as citizens must not allow the fear of terrorism to justify a suspension of our constitutional rights and God-given liberties. We must be ever vigilant of power-hungry politicians overstepping their bounds. If we are not careful the future may hold a repeat of such atrocities as the wrongful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II." -- Andrea Zybell

* * *

"Before all this happened I wasn't concerned about terrorism because I didn't think that terrorism existed in America. I feel now that I have to be more secure and watch my surroundings to make sure nothing fishy is going on. I believe now we are a better nation. We have come closer as Americans than ever before." -- Mike Vasaya

* * *

"I witnessed older friends and relatives suffer after the stock market crashed. Millions of dollars were lost in the crash. Besides the stock market, one of my teachers suffered at the loss of their relatives. Although I wasn't there, rumors passed through the school that when my teacher saw the planes crash into the World Trade Center, he began to cry. The disturbing point lies that when he cried, students laughed and pointed at him. It's absolutely distressing to hear such a rumor about a teacher you respect. September 11, 2001, clearly caused much grief to me as well as others." -- Ravi Mirpuri

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