How most classrooms teach 9/11 and why a UW-Madison professor says there are limitations

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 10:36 PM CDT
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PORTAGE, Wis. (WMTV) - Most teachers in America teach the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the day of the anniversary and often talk about their own experiences, a UW-Madison education professor says.

“It’s that collective memory,” Jeremy Stoddard, who works to prepare social studies teachers at the university, said. “It was such burning for a lot of teachers, especially teachers who were teaching at the time or maybe in college, and they want students to feel a little bit of that shock and horror of people witnessing it on TV.”

Stoddard described the findings of a survey he conducted in 2018, when the last group of students to be alive during the attacks would graduate high school.

He asked more than a thousand teachers from 48 states about how often and to what depth they taught 9/11, as well as what challenges they faced when teaching the event.

Stoddard said teachers want to share the importance of the moment, but it’s not always in their curriculum. With one-and-done lessons, he said Sept. 11 is reduced to a simple narrative.

In that narrative, he said, “9/11 Is this unprecedented, shocking event, [there is] the heroism of the firefighters and police, the world coming together behind 9/11 and the evils of terrorism and the War Against Terror.

“And the problem when you teach that out of context or in a really simple way, using phrases like ‘evil’ tied to ‘Islamic terrorism,’ it means that [students] are going to come away with a really simplistic understanding of the event.”

At Bartels Middle School in Portage, 8th grade history teacher Kaitlyn Maratik said she will be teaching the events of Sept. 11 later this week. She described her take on teaching the event: “Just because 9/11 is getting further and further into the past... [I’ll] relate it to COVID. ‘How is that historical event similar to the historical event they are living in?’”

Maratik said the event will also help students analyze historical text and understand why history is important.

A must for the lesson, she added, is a discussion on tolerance. “Just grouping everyone into one specific category because of that is problematic because that’s what happened after 9/11. People were grouped into categories, and that’s not OK,” she said.

Stoddard created guides on teaching 9/11 here. The link includes how to effectively use primary sources, all to encourage teaching the subject beyond its 20th anniversary.

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