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For today's students, 9/11 is ancient history. So how do teachers bring it to life?

'Baseball shut down?'
For today's students, 9/11 is ancient history. So how do teachers bring it to life?
Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-11 07:00:50-04

Each year, as a teacher of AP government and politics at Anderson High School, Dan Armstrong spends a couple of days with his students exploring the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

This year will present something unique for him: it will likely be the first time that none of his students will have any recollection of that day. Today's seniors would have been only 2 or 3 years old. Freshmen probably weren't born yet.

"I try to take a personal approach to teaching it by talking about all the personal stories," Armstrong said. "It's a complicated event, but it really boils down to the fact that the average person was going to work that day to make a living. I think the students can empathize with that even though they don't remember it."

What happened on 9/11 is to today's high school students what the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963 was to high school students in the late 1970s, or what the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 was to high school students in the early 2000s.

In a word, it's history.

Richard Ingraham has been teaching social studies at Ockerman Middle School in Florence since 1991.

"My understanding of kids' brains and their perspective on historical dates is that if they are too young to remember it, then it happened a very long time ago, even if it wasn't a long time ago to us," Ingraham said.

Ingraham said it's no different than when he was a kid.

"When I was in school in the '60s, I knew what happened on December 7, 1941," Ingraham said. "World War II was relatively recent. But it was still ancient history to me."

That puts more responsibility on history teachers today to bring 9/11 to life for the youth who weren't here to experience it.

Ingraham said Kentucky middle school social studies courses end around the Civil War and Reconstruction period, though he once taught an elective course to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders titled "Great Disasters in American History."

"I made a list of about 20 disasters they could choose from, like the (1871) Chicago fire, the (1906) San Francisco earthquake, the (1889) Johnstown flood. Most of the kids always voted for 9/11 as one they wanted to learn about," Ingraham said. "I used a lot of video because it was so prevalent."

That abundance of 9/11 video and print materials make teaching this different from teaching about most wars or disasters.

Roger Stainforth, AP government and politics teacher at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, said selecting media to use in the classroom can be overwhelming.

"You have to be selective with what you use," Stainforth said. "At some point you have to say, ‘Okay, I'm done searching this.' Everything you see and read will keep leading you to different places. It never stops, so you have to cut yourself off."

Stainforth starts his teaching by having students go through the online "Interactive 9/11 Timelines" produced for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

"With technology and phones and apps and interactive sites, it's a whole new way to learn about events like this," Stainforth said. "I let them go through at their own pace, gather their thoughts and from there we go right into a class discussion. Then I tie it into more curriculum-based material, such as George W. Bush's speech to the nation that night and FDR's ‘Day of Infamy Speech.' "

Armstrong starts his 9/11 class in a similar way at Anderson, but with print media. The week after the attacks, he bought every local and national publication he could find, knowing they would come in handy one day in the classroom.

"The first activity I do is put those all around the room and let the kids pick what they want to read," Armstrong said. "I then give them some time to go through them and build questions."

It doesn't take long for the questions to pile up.

"They say, ‘Wait a minute … nobody was able to fly for a week? The NFL shut down? Baseball shut down?' That's when you start building on the basics of what happened," Armstrong said. "When you look at something from the 10,000-foot view, it's never interesting or exciting. Trying to get them to see that confusion and feel that confusion is important."

Because of time constraints, Armstrong and Stainforth can't spend more than a couple days on 9/11, but that doesn't minimize the impact it has on the students.

"I think the millennial generation gets a bad rap on things," Stainforth said. "At the end of class, the facial expressions and emotions the kids feel are very similar to what we felt that day. I think they understand the magnitude and severity of it -- that this happened where they live."

Armstrong agrees.

"It's definitely one of those units and courses of study we look forward to," he said. "I feel like one of the basic responsibilities we have is to teach the kids to become good citizens and understand how we have become who we are as a nation, and in that day we see it. Though they don't remember 9/11, the students are incredibly respectful about it and very interested in it. They get it. They understand it."