By Jeanette Rundquist The Star Ledger
Mary Vazquez was teaching a lesson about communities at Millburn Middle School nearly 10 years ago when another teacher rushed into her classroom with a message to give if students asked: “Two planes went into the World Trade Center. You are safe.”
When the 9/11 terror attacks occurred, schools struggled with how to handle the unthinkable news. Some locked down their buildings, others made terse announcements, and still others said nothing to students that day.
“School systems were very uncomfortable talking about it,” recalled Vazquez, now a retired teacher of Holocaust studies. “We didn’t know how many families this would affect. We didn’t know much ourselves.”
A decade later, a detailed set of K-12 curriculum is being launched to give New Jersey educators tools for teaching about 9/11. Developed over three years and completed in time for the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the curriculum is called “Learning from the Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism and 9/11 in the Classroom.”
The material includes lesson plans on teaching the events of that day itself, but also delves into topics ranging from the “Impact of Hateful Words,” for elementary students to “What is Terrorism?” in middle school and “Reaction to and from the Muslim and Arab Communities” for high school students. Also included are lessons on “acts of kindness” that occurred on 9/11, and ideas for students to help their town, community and the world.
Created by a volunteer group called the 4 Action Initiative, made up of Families of September 11, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and Liberty Science Center, the effort also included former Gov. Thomas Kean and dozens of New Jersey teachers who wrote and piloted lesson plans. The curriculum is to be introduced by representatives of the group and acting State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf at Liberty Science Center Thursday.
“This, after all, was the traumatic event of our age. It’s important children understand it, and understand it in all of its ramifications,” said Kean, who was president of Drew University when the attacks occurred. He said he was home recovering from a dental procedure that morning but after learning the news, jumped in his car and drove to campus, where he invited the entire student body to gather and talk about it.
MaryEllen Salamone of North Caldwell, who lost her husband on 9/11 and who is past president of Families of September 11, said a survey of 100 teachers several years ago showed an overwhelming majority did not teach about the attacks because “they did not know what to say.”
The idea is the new curriculum will make them comfortable with the topic, she said.
Dr. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said two key themes are that all people should not be condemned because of the acts of a few, and that individuals can make a difference. The guidelines are not mandated, Winkler said, but those involved say they hope educators will want to use them to teach about the attacks and the aftermath.
“The genius of this curriculum is that it’s not just for the day that you memorialize 9/11. It’s a curriculum that can be used all year long,” he said.
The effort was supported with about $50,000 to $60,000 in grants plus in-kind donations, Salamone said. The original goal was to be done last year, with an “absolute” deadline of having curriculum ready by the 10th anniversary.
The lessons were piloted in 60 classrooms, in 48 districts during the 2009-10 school year. Karen Levine, then an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Central Middle School in Parsippany, helped write curriculum and asked co-workers to try it.
Parsippany seventh-grade teacher Ryan Shaffer piloted three lessons last year, including one that used Bruce Springsteen’s album “The Rising,” to teach how people cope with tragedy. Afterward, his students chose to write their own songs and poems.
He had such good response that he taught the lessons again this year.
“It was phenomenal. Seventh-graders last year were only 4 and 5 years old at the time, it was like they were learning about it for the first time,” said Shaffer, 30, who was a college junior when the attacks occurred.
“The success of it would lead me to believe you’d want to do it every year. Especially as kids get younger, pretty soon you’ll be teaching kids who were not alive when it happened,” he said.
Donna Gaffney, who is on both the faculty of the International Trauma Studies Program and the advisory board of Families of September 11, said the curriculum will be released to all New Jersey teachers online after Thursday. The website can be found here.
The group has had requests for the curriculum from teachers in other states and will offer it free to anyone who wants to use it, she said. The curriculum writers welcome feedback and suggestions. “We want to hear what worked best, what didn’t work, what we need to add,” Gaffney said. “We’re considering this a living, breathing document.”