Teaching 9/11

By THOMAS PAGE MCBEE  |  September 12, 2011

And the facts? They aren't enough. "You need to help students make sense of why they are learning these facts, why this is relevant, why is this is important," she says. "Yeah, textbook publishers are in an incredibly hard position. So are teachers. Their interpretation of why these facts matter or are important can be totally different than the students' parents' interpretation. But, just because it's hard and risky doesn't mean that teachers can avoid it. It's part of what it means to be an educated citizen."

On September 7, Levinson moderated a panel at Harvard called "Teaching 9/11." The only schoolteacher invited to speak was Chris Ougheltree, an animated Social Studies teacher at Cranston High School East in Rhode Island.

On September 11, 2001, Ougheltree was in his classroom teaching when the first plane hit. "My department head came in and told us what had happened. We all watched it on TV. I made it a conscious effort that I'd always teach about it ever since that day, that's what's motivated me. There's so much to talk about. It was a turning point in history."

For the last several years, he and his seniors have visited the World Trade Center site, and he's instituted a community-service component to commemorate the anniversary this year.

"The first day, I ask them how has 9/11 affected their lives," he says. "The standard answer is 'Taking [my] shoes off at the airport.' "


Ougheltree decided to interpret the teaching standards in such a way that he could rearrange his classes to focus on 9/11 for "a few weeks" as a lens in which to teach civics and good citizenship, critical thought, and compassion. He encourages the students to connect emotionally to the events of those days, and to question the implications 9/11 has had for US foreign policy, Guantánamo, and Abu Ghraib. He says that, this year, he wants to discuss the way people celebrated bin Laden's death. "What we want to teach kids in a social studies class is to think for themselves," he says.

He says that attending a teaching conference this summer was the first time that he realized how much teachers struggle with 9/11 as a topic. "Most people aren't [teaching it], for not knowing how to, I guess," he says, his voice like a bewildered shrug.

Ougheltree says that soon he'll be showing his seniors an HBO documentary called In Memoriam New York City, 9/11/01, just like he does every year. He'll tear up as they watch footage of the planes hitting the towers, the people looking for lost family members, the jumpers.

"I do tell the kids it would be quite natural to cry," he says, "and there are some students that do cry, and I say how I cry. There is that trust, we can have open discussions." And then they'll write reflective essays and begin a multi-week discussion that Ougheltree hopes his students will take with them into the rest of their lives. "Those values that make up a good citizen — a productive, thoughtful citizen that can take a look at different sides and form their own opinions — that's what we want students to do, right?" he says.

I think back to my summers a few years ago, about the students' outrage and empathy and patriotism as they learned about 9/11 in depth for the first time, and I let the question hang between us.

Thomas Page McBee can be reached at tmcbee@phx.com.

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