Newswise — Teachers who address the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with their classes have an opportunity to help their students develop some important analytical skills, according to Rowan University education professor John Spencer.
"Discussing 9/11 is a really useful dimension in the classroom," says Spencer, an historian and former middle school and high school history teacher who specializes in social studies education.
"In schools, commemorations are fine. It's important to remember that this happened and to honor the memory of people who lost their lives.
"But analysis about 9/11 also is important," he continues. "Teachers can discuss who did this, and why? How has the U.S. responded since, and what are the debates over those responses?"
Doing so, says Spencer, "is not a statement of sympathy with terrorists or an act of moral relativism, as some have suggested. It's sound practice in history and social studies education."
Teachers sometimes shy away from delving into controversial topics in the classroom, according to Spencer. The key to discussing 9/11 in the classroom is not to take sides, but to help students weigh competing arguments and evidence and come to their own conclusions about the event and its impact on the world, the nation, and their own lives, Spencer says.
"There's no fixed consensus on 9/11 in the outside world on what lessons we should take from 9/11, so there shouldn't be in the classroom," says Spencer. "If you're bashing either the president or his critics, you're not educating. You're advocating. And there's no room for that in the classroom.
"Our job as educators is not to teach students what to think, but, rather, how to think about and discuss issues like these in a civil, responsible debate," he continues. "The most important thing is to set up a civil, thoughtful arena of dialogue and debate. That's a skill that teachers in middle school need to teach. Students don't already know how to do that on their own."
While federal standards state that those skills should be taught in middle school, the teaching of history too often still involves the all-knowing teacher teaching facts to unknowing students, Spencer says.
That's why discussing the anniversary of 9/11 is such a valuable teaching moment, he notes.
"The middle school standards are very sophisticated," says Spencer. "In middle school, you're expected to debate and interpret and defend your position on a topic."
Spencer has his own personal viewpoint of 9/11 and its history.
On Sept 11. 2001, he was in the first week of a new job working with history teachers in Lower Manhattan. His office was eight blocks from the World Trade Center. The father of a then-six-month-old baby, he watched the planes crash into the Twin Towers from his apartment window.
A month later, he led workshops for history teachers that helped them put some of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 into historical context. His workshops focused on the tension between security and civil liberties during World War I and on Japanese internment camps in World War II.
"At that point, 9/11 was too fresh to analyze as history," Spencer says. "With the teachers, we went back to 1919 and talked about civil liberties, an issue that has always been very important during times of war and national crisis.
"They were able to explore these historical connections and make meaningful links to the present."