TEACHING 9/11: How Long Island Schools Begin to Address the Attacks
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Toby Selda had just walked her new class of second graders from the classroom to the library of West Islip’s Westbrook Elementary School when she noticed the upheaval. Her fellow teachers—Westbrook employs about 30 teachers, and houses grades K through 5—were upset, she remembers. Then, she heard the school’s principal say, “The world will never be the same.”
As the news trickled down to the teachers, so too did the directives.
“We were told not to say anything to the children,” says Selda, “and of course, not to act upset.”
In that moment, the school was not there to educate its students about what was occurring outside their classrooms, but to shelter them from it. Selda remembers that it was a beautiful afternoon, but the students were not allowed outside for recess. As the day wore on, some parents arrived at the school before the final bell, to pull their children from the classroom, to bring them home. Selda remembers her students asking questions, but she was not able or allowed to answer them.
“It was not easy to do,” she says. “It was almost like an out-of-body experience. You’re going ahead teaching and the world is falling apart around you.”
Today, 10 years later, schools continue to struggle with teaching students about that day. In some ways, it is perhaps even harder now than it was then. Students who are now 10 years old—students who started the fifth grade sometime over the last week, and will leave elementary school for middle school next June—had just been born when the attacks occurred. For some of them, that story is completely unfamiliar; it has never been introduced into their consciousness. And now, it is an event of history, one close enough to be remembered clearly by those who were there to witness it, one whose scars are still visible, still unhealed.
But for a 10-year-old today, it was part of another lifetime, someone else’s lifetime.
Mary Anne Cowan is the social studies chair at Ss. Cyril and Methodius, a Catholic school in Deer Park that teaches grades Pre-K through 8. According to Cowan, at Ss. Cyril and Methodius, teachers at all levels will discuss 9/11 with their students—although they will all approach it differently.
“Each teacher will present it in a way and manner in which they are comfortable,” says Cowan. “We’re trying to approach it in terms of a historical event which occurred very close to home [but] had far-reaching effects. We’re trying to look at how it has impacted our life, and let the youngsters go away with a sense that this is an important event. We want to make sure that they understand the history involved, but that it’s not just a historical event. This was a very personal, even intimate, occurrence for the teachers who are speaking to them—some of whom were teaching at the time, some of whom were in school at the time. Everyone brings to the classroom their background experience, their prior knowledge of the event.”
There is at present no curriculum from the State Department of Education on how to teach 9/11, says Cowan, but she adds, “I think in time there will be.”
According to Sharon Colburn, who teaches fourth grade at Dickinson Elementary School in East Northport, no directive has been passed down from the school or the superintendent, and she is under no obligation whatsoever to teach 9/11 to her kids. But Colburn plans to address it, if indirectly. She’s going to read to her kids two books—Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein—both of which center on the true story of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who walked a wire strung between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. Colburn says she will see what that generates, if anything. “I don’t want to introduce it in a negative way,” she says. But she will, she says, answer questions if they arise. “I would be shocked,” she says, “if I didn’t have someone in my class who didn’t know someone who perished on that day.”
As for West Islip’s Westbrook, there is still no plan to teach the events of 9/11. The school has asked its students to wear red, white and blue this year. And then, there will be a moment of silence.
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