In the Wayland Classroom with 9/11, Islam and PTSD
Educators have for the past 10 years found ways to incorporate 9/11 into the classrooms of America's schools.
Days into his second year of teaching at Wayland High School, David Schmirer, a teacher in the history department, saw a small story online about a plane crash in New York City.
“I didn’t think too much about that at that point,” said Schmirer, who grew up on Long Island and still has family there. “But with each subsequent update of that story …”
As the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded, “Classes just kind of stopped,” Schmirer said. “We just rolled out the TVs that we had and plugged them in. Kids just started kind of gathering in the history department.”
Schmirer said that as the weeks passed after the attacks, students and teachers began considering the attacks from religious, political and social standpoints.
With those events and the subsequent "war on terror" came a lot of questions from students, which meant that Schmirer and his fellow teachers did some rethinking when it came to teaching world cultures and events.
“The kids in school at the time were really old enough to be able to process it in an adult fashion,” Schmirer said. “How it’s taught has evolved over 10 years.”
In 2001, Schmirer was teaching World Cultures, a freshman course. He said the course already featured a cursory look at Islam and the Middle East, but he expanded the curriculum that year to include a look at Afghanistan and a deeper examination of Islam.
“We helped students to realize, ‘Here’s what’s Islam is all about, here is what is being used from the religious texts to justify the attacks,’” Schmirer said. “That first year was especially about trying to knock down myths about Islam.”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, no published history textbooks included the events, so Schmirer said teachers used magazines, newspapers and the Internet as their teaching texts. Even now, 10 years later, Schmirer said a recent textbook the school has features a small sidebar, but very little detail.
“We haven’t relied on the textbooks as much as we relied on the magazines, the newspapers and the Web,” Schmirer said. “Those have really been the teaching tools for this event.”
Wayland Public School Superintendent Paul Stein said he saw classrooms in 2001 begin reflecting the questions that the larger population was asking. That continues today, he said.
“Questions arose as to what defines us as Americans and also what defines as people,” said Stein, who was principal at Frank Ashley Day Middle School in Newton at the time of the attacks. “It really brought home in a very visceral way world events that maybe prior to [9/11] felt distant. It highlighted studying other cultures and religion and the importance of understanding the world from a multicultural perspective.”
Unlike any other event in recent history – the Oklahoma City bombing, the Lockerbie bombing, etc. – 9/11, Schmirer said, altered curriculum and provided a new language and set of topics that before didn’t exist.
“Particularly when the Iraq War started, we began trying to look at the 20th century history of the Middle East,” Schmirer said. “We began taking a deeper look at the teachings of Islam overall. We hadn’t really gone into the details of how the faith is practiced, and we looked at the good and the bad – kind of added more and more pieces into our study.”
Schmirer also teaches a psychology course, a course titled Media and the American Democracy and another course titled Crime and Law. Each of these courses, he said, now includes elements it likely would not have included if 9/11 had never occurred.
His Crime and Law course includes a discussion of Guantanamo Bay detention camp and the Patriot Act, and his Media and the American Democracy course this year will look at how “to some degree 9/11 has reshaped the community and how, to some degree, what it means to be an American.”
With this year being the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Schmirer said he plans to adjust some elements of the curriculum to coincide with the anniversary. For instance, his psychology class usually does a short unit on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) toward the end of the course, but he plans to address the topic earlier this year in the context of PTSD among first-responders and people living in the area of the attacks.
“The psychology perspective is going to be very much focused on that and how this [9/11] is affecting people 10 years later,” Schmirer said.
He said that as each new group of students comes through his classroom door, he finds they know less and less about the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think that they have the basic understanding that it was a sad day and it was a terrible day and a lot of people died,” Schmirer said of his upcoming students, which will include freshmen who were no more than 4 or 5 years old when 9/11 occurred. “I’m going to go in assuming that the kids know next-to-nothing about that day.”
He said he doesn’t believe Wayland students are unique in that 9/11 seems distant from their everyday lives.
“It’s probably typical of suburban, affluent communities throughout the country,” he said. “I think a lot of these kids need reminding that we are engaged in two wars right now, which is why it’s kind of on us to keep it an essential part of what we do.”
Some 9/11 resources Schmirer plans to use in his class: