Their memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are vague and halting, taking most of the girls back to their days in preschool.
“I just remember Mother turning on the TV, but it didn’t make much sense,” said Ada Bankston, 14, a ninth-grader at St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge
“I don’t really remember anything at all,” classmate Jessie Doucet, 15, said.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which left almost 3,000 people dead, damaged the Pentagon and took down the World Trade Center towers, are shifting from indelible memories to essays in social studies classes.
Extensive classroom examination of the 9/11 tragedy, however, appears to be the exception rather than norm. Many Baton Rouge-area schools are doing small remembrances — several schools have prepared appreciation banners to be given to first responders in Baton Rouge — or touching on the subject briefly in class, but little more.
“It just seemed to be doing them a disservice if I didn’t do anything about 9/11 or didn’t talk about it,” said Stephen Barrios, who teaches civics at St. Joseph’s Academy, an all-girls private Catholic high school.
Diana Hess, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently told Education Week magazine that classrooms across the country often pay scant attention to the events of 9/11.
“I think if we did a really good, large-scale study … we would find that 9/11 is not in most social studies classes,” said Hess, who has written extensively about social studies instruction related to 9/11. “That doesn’t mean it’s not in some, or that it doesn’t get an occasional mention.”
Karl Roider, an LSU professor who trains future middle and high school social studies teachers, said the state’s comprehensive curriculum has a lot to do with why Louisiana public schools don’t spend more time on big contemporary events.
Rolled out in 2005, the curriculum is crowded with things for teachers to cover in 180 school days. The curriculum drives his own teacher training, Roider said.
“We don’t discuss historical significance of anything. It’s purely directed towards the comprehensive curriculum,” Roider said. “It doesn’t sound like education, but that’s the face of K-12 education now. You have to do it these days.”
David Faerber, a social studies teacher at Tara High and a liaison with the National Council for the Social Studies, said strict adherence to the curriculum, as is the case with many public schools in Baton Rouge, leaves teachers little time to capitalize on current events.
“You don’t have time to do such things, because you’re on a pacing guide,” Faerber said.
He recalled that when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, teachers were quick to use the event to teach about the space program.
“Twenty years ago, every teacher would have taught (9/11),” Faerber said. “You would stop what you were doing.”
The upside of a common curriculum is that students cover more ground than they used to, Faerber said.
“You used to hear of teachers who were spending half a year on the Civil War,” he said.
Covering all that material, however, can come at a price. U.S. history, taught to high school juniors, is where discussion of 9/11 would ordinarily emerge, but it’s difficult to finish the assigned content, Roider said.
“Just getting up to the 2000s can be tricky,” Roider said.
Across south Louisiana, some educators are taking it upon themselves to highlight the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Ninth-graders at Tara High School, like those at St. Joseph’s Academy, are getting a clinic in all things 9/11.
Kim Denson, coordinator of the freshman academy at Tara High School, started students several days ago with short exercises in their world geography class, but that’s just the start.
Science classes are learning about the environment and health problems stemming from the attacks, English classes are exploring how the tragedy is being memorialized, and algebra classes are deriving math problems from the designs of the old World Trade Center versus the complex planned to replace it, she said.
Denson said that when she was a social studies teacher she would touch on 9/11 each year, but after several years found students were increasingly ignorant on the subject.
Pam Middlebrook, the social studies department chair at McKinley High, said teachers tackle topics like 9/11 at different points throughout the year, or they tie it to current events, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.
A handful of states, including New Jersey, have adopted specific curricula to discuss 9/11.
Louisiana’s comprehensive curriculum calls upon American history classes to “identify and explain domestic issues and reform movements” and mentions terrorism in the same breath as the environment and the war on drugs.
Starting in 2014, Louisiana high school social studies teachers will be asked, through the curriculum, to “trace the rise in domestic and foreign terrorism and analyze its effects on America’s way of life,” mentioning 9/11 as an example.
Even when discussed, though, the treatment of 9/11 can be thin.
University of Madison’s Hess, along with Jeremy Stoddard, an assistant professor in education at the College of William & Mary, looked at nine textbooks released by 2005 and found their handling of 9/11 to be “blatantly nationalist, factually misleading or outright wrong, avoided political controversies, and generally banal.” This year, they examined the revised editions of three of these textbooks and found them improved somewhat, but still lacking in certain respects and contradictory to each other.
At St. Joseph’s Academy, civics teacher Barrios, rather than use a textbook, walked his students through an extensive interactive website on 9/11 developed by the History Channel. It is one of many such online resources teachers can draw from.
Barrios also showed the History Channel’s “102 Minutes That Changed America,” a documentary that shows news footage of the four plane crashes on Sept. 11, 2001, from the first to the last, in real time.
The 23 girls in Barrios’ class Tuesday were clearly interested and interrupted him repeatedly with questions. They emitted a disappointed “ahhh” as the final class bell rang.
Some questions, though, Barrios had more trouble fielding, including why it happened at all.
Barrios talked about Osama bin Laden’s opposition to the United States’ military presence in Saudi Arabia since the first Gulf War in 1991, but also how poverty in the Mideast allowed radicalization to emerge. He noted how people living in refugee camps in the Palestinian territories have engaged in terrorist acts.
“What can possibly be worse than living in one of those refugee camps,” Barrios said.
After class, Marlee Chatelain, 14, was still struggling with how a group of people could kill so many innocent people.
“Why did they do it?” she asked. “I know they were tired of things, and (Osama) was jealous, but I just want to know why.”