Teaching 9/11

Marinette High School history teacher Robert Smith reviews a video he plans to use in teaching 9/11 this week in Marinette.

EagleHerald Staff Writer

As is the case with all major events, what was once news is now history. The attacks carried out on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, happened 20 years ago. Students in school now, whether in high school or the average college class, were either infants, pre-born or not yet conceived when the towers fell. What they know of 9/11 is what has been taught to them.

So how is the attack taught in schools?

Robert Smith, a history teacher at Marinette High School, first taught the attacks to middle school students in 2004. He had been in college at the time of the attack. “It was fairly easy at that time, since most of the middle-schoolers remembered it. It was kind of like a refresher for them, since it was still vivid in their minds,” he said.

He said if the anniversary of the attack fell on a school day, that would be the day he’d do the lesson to honor the day of remembrance. “It was ingrained in our brains, ‘Never Forget.’ You get more out of it if you learn about it on that day, and students get a lot more out of it that way,” he said.

Smith said there was one instance when 9/11 fell on a weekend, so he had students interview someone over the weekend about their memories of the day using a list of questions he provided them, and he always shares the story of what he was doing on that day.

Smith said he was in college in Green Bay at the time and was working outside on Sept. 11. “Around Green Bay, you always hear or see the planes coming into Austin-Straubel Airport. When they grounded the planes, I say that it was the eeriest day in Green Bay. All of a sudden, just silence, and your day went from a typical day to, ‘Where’s the planes?’ Then you notice it and know it’s a big deal,” he said.

“I think the amount of resources available (to teachers) has become more abundant,” Smith said, talking about the ways teaching the event has changed in the last 20 years. “Early on, you had PBS, and I used PBS’ news footage. I didn’t want to worry about what a YouTube video was going to show. But now there’s much more availability, and with the internet it’s at your fingertips. Now, I’ll be using the Good Morning America footage, and they’ll be able to see the live footage of the second plane hitting the tower.”

This year, Smith said the lesson plans have shifted to online lessons. Because the anniversary takes place on a Saturday this year, he said his students will be participating in a two-part lesson that is partially online. On Thursday, students went over the basic timeline of events on the morning of Sept. 11, who carried out the attacks, and what happened in the aftermath. Today, Smith’s students will participate in a two-hour online symposium, during which they’ll hear from a few guest speakers, including a first responder, a teacher, a student, and one of the top commanders of one of the fire departments that was on the scene “I’m sure students today look at it much in the same way that kids in the early 60s or late 50s look at Pearl Harbor. I think by exposing them to a lot of perspectives, it will give them a broader picture of what actually happened. My hope is that they’ll have gained enough from the lesson Thursday to come back on Friday with good questions,” he said.

Smith said in recent years, students come with many more questions about what happened, and he describes it as a bit of a double-edged sword. He said most students have at least seen something, whether a photo or a video or something. But he said they often gravitate towards the most negative moments, which is what drives their questions. “They’ve seen the video of people jumping, and the questions that come about are, ‘Why would they do that? Was there no other way out?’ And as a teacher, I’m at a loss as to what to tell them. Until you’re put in that situation, how can you know?”

Menominee High School’s newest history teacher, Zach Meyer, was only in second grade when the towers were attacked. He went to school in Livonia, Mich., and on the day of the attack he said he remembered noticing by about 10 a.m. that morning that kids were gradually being picked up by their parents. Eventually, he and some of his classmates asked their teachers what was going on, and they were told not to worry about it for now and ask their parents when they got home. “You could tell that they were hiding something. I remember going home, and my mom sat me down and told me that something really bad happened in New York. I never really saw her talk like that before, and I was very intrigued,” he said.

Meyer said his memory is hazy, but he remembers seeing pictures of the attacks the next day on TV, and then later on heard about Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania and the other attack on the Pentagon, and then realized that this was a serious attack. “It’s kind of funny, because a lot of people I talk to say it was a beautiful morning, and I remember it like that. It was almost like the weather was predicting what would happen,” he said.

He said he didn’t really do much for 9/11 while he was in school, since it was still so new and details were still coming in. “I think my sophomore year of high school is when I first saw it in the textbooks. Some teachers did PowerPoints on it, some just talked about it; I don’t remember what my teachers did, but we didn’t have time to cover it. We always stopped and remembered, though,” he said.

From his own research on what happened, he’s not surprised that his classes didn’t cover the attacks too much. “It’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said, “and you might be able to show some videos in class, but there’s always going to be that one kid who realizes, ‘That’s not debris falling, that’s a human being.’ So whenever I give this to kids, I tell them that there’s other stuff to learn, and there are also conspiracy theories. So you need to be careful, and as soon as you start to get a little bit sad about it, go get help. If you go down a rabbit hole, you’ll find a lot of hard things to face, so tread carefully.”

Dr. Dan Kallgren was in his current role at UW-Green Bay Marinette Campus, or then simply UW-Marinette teaching history. He had just dropped his daughter off at preschool when he heard the news of the attack on the radio. “One of the international programs we used to have brought in students, I think from the Caribbean Basin; they were all gathered in the Union watching the TV, so I was watching them when the first of the towers went down,” he said.

Later that day, Kallgren was asked by Jane Jones, who at the time was in charge of the international programs, to reassure the foreign students that they were safe in Marinette. “I had no problem doing that. I told them, ‘You can write back to your family; you’re in one of the most out-of-the-way places in the United States, you’re very, very safe here,’” he said.

For Kallgren, what happened on 9/11 was, as he described it, a shift in the historical paradigm, which had already been underway leading up to the attack. “Historians love to periodize stuff; this block of time seems to have these characteristics that hold it together, and then this block of time has these other ones and they change. So broadly speaking, the U.S. stayed off of the world stage, for the most part, through the 19th century. Then they start to get into the empire-building game, World War I comes along and we get involved late, and a lot of Americans think it was a disaster. Then World War II comes along, Adolf Hitler comes to power, a militaristic regime takes over in Japan, and Franklin Roosevelt steadfastly keeps America out of the conflict for a while, but it’s clear the United States will have to get involved eventually. Then the attack on Pearl Harbor happens, and the U.S. enters World War II,” he said.

After that point, Kallgren said the U.S. was basically on top of the world as we entered into the Cold War, and it’s the Cold War that he said sets the paradigm from that point onwards, sort of solidifying the global position of the country. “For 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, there’s this feeling of, ‘Where are we? What’s the dominant global paradigm of international relations?’ Now there were hints of this religiously-fueled terrorist threat going all the way back to the Carter administration,” he said.

After the Cold War ended, and after the first Persian Gulf War chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, Kallgren said there was a thought that maybe this was the new paradigm. “It sure seemed that way, I mean talk about an international coalition. When you can get Syria and Israel on the same side of an issue, which they were in kicking Hussein out of Kuwait, good on you. Maybe this is how global relations will function from now on, maybe the United Nations is going to play a more important role. Well, it wasn’t,” he said.

Kallgren said he teaches 9/11 as the event that ushers the United States out of the “limbo” following the Cold War and into the global war on terror. “It’s fascinating and terrifying because you’re dealing with non-state actors. For all the money that was spent and wasted, the Cold War was relatively stable. People knew how the world worked. The thing with this new global war on terror paradigm, I tell my students it’s like dealing with the bad guys in old James Bond movies. You wouldn’t get someone like Goldfinger; an entity like that wouldn’t be allowed to exist in the Cold War. He’d either get co-opted by someone or one of them would kill him and that’s that,” he said.

As the years pass, Kallgren said the 9/11 attacks solidify more and more why it’s important for his students to understand what happened when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979. “The Iranian revolution is key to understanding what happened in the Middle East. 9/11 is kind of this weirdly culminating event where the focal point of global tension was being drawn away from this stand-off between global superpowers to the Middle East,” he said.

Kallgren said he drives home the point that those responsible for the attacks were from a highly radicalized version of Islam. “It is critical that people understand this. Just like other religious radicals are in the small minority, these radical Muslim groups like ISIS and the Taliban are not at all the majority,” he said.

Teaching students about 9/11 who weren’t alive for it, to Kallgren, is just like teaching people about the Civil War. “Nobody alive today was around for that. The absolute youngest World War II vets are 94, and Vietnam vets are in their 70s. Historians are good at this, it’s what we do. Just because you haven’t lived it doesn’t mean you can’t learn about it. And the further we get from it, the clearer our understanding of it is,” he said.