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What Should We Tell Students About 9/11?

A new curriculum guide written by volunteer educators and people affected by Sept. 11 aims to teach students about terrorism, bullying, war, and hatred in a constructive and sensitive way.

"A Letter to Caitlyn"

"You asked your mom why everyone is so sad around your birthday and you wonder why you never got to meet your Uncle Johnnie. I hope I can help you understand.

"Before you were born, there were two really big buildings in New York City called the Twin Towers. Your Uncle Johnnie worked on the 104th floor of the building, almost at the very top! He worked with bankers and had lots of friends who worked with him.

"A week before you were born, a group of men who did not like our country, did a very bad thing. They hijacked airplanes, which means they forced the pilots to let them fly the planes. Instead of landing the planes, they flew the planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, a building called the Pentagon in Washington and into a field in Pennsylvania. Lots of people were able to get out out of the buildings that were hit by the planes and run to safety. But some people did not."

The above is the text of a letter MaryEllen Salamone wrote to her then 7-year-old-niece in an attempt to get her to understand the event that shared the week of her birthday. Salamone is one of the co-founders of Families of Sept. 11., and the 4 Action Initiative.

"Uncle Johnnie" is Salamone's husband, John Salamone, who was killed in the attacks.

This past summer, 4 Action Initiative, a group of educators, and advocates for the families, released a curriculum guide called "Learning From The Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism and 9/11 in the Classroom."

The guide is a collection of over 100 lessons for grades K-12, customized for the maturity and suitability of broaching these topics at each grade level. Along with lessons directly on Sept. 11, it contains lessons that discuss related historical events, bullying, racial profiling, how to work past personal fears, the use of music and art to heal, and the different walks of life that make up life in America.

The curriculum is not mandatory, and is free to any educator who wants a copy (You can read the entire document, in the gallery, at right).

By teachers, for teachers

When explaining the events of Sept. 11, the history that is related to them and what has come from them, several educators agreed that they needed a constructive plan that came from the front lines of the people involved. That's where the 4 Action Initiative came in.

"We wanted to get many different viewpoints for specific lessons (and) we also wanted to make sure that the lessons were challenging and thought-provoking enough for the students," said Vincent Soccodato, supervisor of social studies and world language for Woodbridge Public Schools, and a curriculum writer for the 4 Action Initiative.

When writing the curriculum, the consideration was not just the where and when, but the why—why an instance of terrorism took place, why people do these kinds of things, he said.

A unit entitled "From the Playground to the World Stage" builds on lessons of bullying and tolerance and then expands onto how those lessons can be applied in the greater world sense, and in the face of hatred and terrorism.

"(We) didn't want to focus only on terrorism, we wanted to focus on how people from all walks of life, all ages can experience violence, aggression, (and) terrorism," Soccodato said.

The educator effort that went into writing the curriculum included dozens of teachers, both for writing and piloting the lessons.

A curriculum committee included active and retired educators from Jackson, Succasunna and Summit, while the 16 teachers designated as curriculum writers came from 10 counties throughout the state.

Jill McCracken, a teacher of international relations and AP psychology for Holmdel Public Schools, said the understanding of the events of 9/11 by her students can be hazy.

After the announced death of Osama Bin Laden, one of the largest internet searches was "Who was Osama Bin Laden?" McCracken said. Those making the inquiry were concentrated in the 13-to-17 age range, she said.

"And that's astounding, and still very important," McCracken said. "I would rather them learn facts about what happened, and that's (why) I think this curriculum is really important."

McCracken said the curriculum was written over a three-year-period—conferencing and planning, writing, piloting, getting copyright permissions and putting it together into a coherent final product.

"I'm very happy with the outcome, I think we did a good job of it," she said.

Sensitivity Issues

"One of the things that sparked this whole initiative (was that) teachers were saying we don't really know how to deal with this issue,'' Soccodato said.

With the occurrence of Sept. 11 at the beginning of the school year, when students are still getting settled and classes beginning to come together as a familiar unit, the topic became hard to tackle, and remained so throughout the school year.

"Keep in mind that a student in a U.S. History class in grade 10 would be 15 years old in 2011—this means they would have been 5 years old in 2001, and 7 years old in 2003,'' said William R. Fernekes, an adjunct assistant professor of education at Rider University. "Depending upon their interest and involvement with the topics via their family... their personal exposure to the mass media... and prior study in school, it is rather important in my view for educators to survey student understanding before introducing one or more of these lessons."

For that reason, McCracked said she would not be actively teaching about 9/11 on Sept. 9, two days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

"I probably won't have all their names learned by then,' McCracken said. "It is still a sensitive subject... I teach juniors and seniors (and) for the most part, a lot of them were 7 years old on 9/11."

McCracken said there may be children in her classes who have lost family in the attacks, and it is important for her to know a bit more about them as people before delving into sensitive material.

"For them, a lot of it is history and a lot of it is personal history as well," she said.

The Future

At the unveiling of the curriculum in July, Salamone and her three children addressed a room full of educators, state officials and reporters.

The idea of the curriculum is to better educate the children of this state on the difficult issues of terrorism and hatred, because through greater understanding comes solutions to ending them, she said then.

"We need to give them the knowledge so they understand,'' she said.

In her letter to Caitlyn, Salamone—or "Aunti Mare"—stressed that despite the fact that the terror attacks changed her family forever, they must focus on the positive.

"Laws around the world to make it safer on airplanes and in buidings. People changed and tried to be nicer to each other and help each other more.

"September 11 is a sad day, but it is a day when we remember what happened, and a day we should all try a little harder to make our world a better place. Uncle Johnnie would really like that."

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