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Teaching 9/11 to Texas Students Who Don't Remember - Or Weren't Yet Born That Day

Maira Kalman

Remembering the events of September 11th is easy for most Americans. It's a fresh, sometimes painful memory for some. 

But for the youngest in our country, it's a day that generates no memories or understanding of what happened and why.  As the country gets further away from the event, it becomes the responsibility of teachers and schools to educate students about the events on 9/11 and after from elementary to high school.

UT Social Studies expert Cinthia Salinas says one way teachers introduce the topic to elementary students is through children's literature, like the book Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J Harvey. It's about a boat that brought people to safety during the 9/11 attacks.

“It was 8:45 in the morning. Another beautiful and sunny day.  Two planes crashed into the twin towers. Crashed, crashed, crashed into these two strong buildings," the book reads.

According to Texas standards, the first time 9/11 could be introduced to students is in third grade. Students learn about citizenship and heroes — including Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on United Flight 93. Salinas says it’s often controversial when to introduce topics like September 11th in class, similar to teaching the Holocaust.

“You can take the notion of Holocaust — an incredibly horrible world event — and conceptualize what its about. It’s about this dislike for others without any rational premise for it. So there are ways we can begin to couch it in early grades and then in conceptualization of it, fit it into historical events," Salinas says.

The next time Texas students learn specifically about 9/11 is eleventh grade. Students are required to describe US involvement in world affairs including 9/11 and the global War on Terror. In Government class, they’re asked to explain constitutional issues raised by the Patriot Act.

Jeremy Stoddard is a professor at the College of William and Mary. He has studied the teaching of 9/11 in textbooks and state curriculums since the first anniversary of the attacks. He says Texas is one of 21 states that specifically mention 9/11 in its state teaching standards.

“It is also one of four states that specifically named Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden, and it includes Al Qaeda as part of a standard, and one of three states that specifically referenced Islam in the context of terrorism. There’s a very small group that ties those specifically together," Stoddard says.

As teachers and textbooks start introducing more complex ideas and lessons surrounding 9/11 as children get older, it also increases the chance for disagreement and debate. Stoddard says the standards in Texas reference Islam in a general way that could lead to stereotyping.

“Often times, radical Islam is tied specifically to terrorism and other groups aren’t included. So they’re not talking about other radical groups that have been involved in terrorist attacks. It specifies Islam in particular," he says.

One Austin teacher says he tries to eliminate preconceived notions of prejudice through his own lessons about 9/11.

“Most of my students were born in 1999 or 2000 so it is the most impactful upon their lives on a daily basis but they walk around unknowing about the material," says Daniel Shane, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at Murchison Middle School. 

He says he uses much of his own resources to teach about the attacks. He calls friends who were at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and has them talk to the kids about their experience.

“I use that as a primary source to teach them how to get as close to a sources as possible while learning about 9/11. Then they’re going to go on their own to find secondary sources to find another person’s recollection of what happened similarly," Shane says.

Shane says he spends time dispelling rumors and falsehoods about the attacks that students have learned:

“They fear what they don’t know. They fear people that might look different so I just put in context who did it, why the sources say they did and leave the fantasy and sensationalism for them to find on their own. Because I want to be an agent of facts.”

Stoddard with the College of William & Mary says most texts books give very few details about 9/11. That makes sense since social studies textbooks in Texas haven’t been updated since 2003.

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