The big question for the new school year? “Teaching in a time of terror: How do we respond?”
That’s what I’m supposed to talk about this week before an audience of teachers in northern Virginia — many with classrooms near the Pentagon. Like most educators across America, they’re gearing up for the first anniversary of 9/11 — and for the inevitable questions and emotions surrounding the ongoing war on terrorism.
The first thing I’ll say is “thank you.” Much has been said about the heroic deeds of firefighters, police officers and rescue workers on 9/11 and in the days that followed. Rightly so. They symbolize America at our best.
But let’s not forget the teachers. Many of these unsung heroes and heroines acted swiftly to comfort and protect kids in schools near the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many more were the first line of response on 9/11 for thousands of bewildered children throughout the nation. And they were there each day thereafter working hard to help students comprehend the incomprehensible in a world changed by terror.
Now comes a new school year — and the first anniversary of that tragic day. What should teachers do to “remember Sept. 11?”
On the day itself, my advice is simple: Focus on commemoration — not explanation.
Hold school-wide assemblies to honor those who died and served on Sept. 11 — and those who have died (and served) for the past year fighting terrorism. Celebrate the strength and resilience of America’s guiding principles — but without empty slogans or mindless jingoism (always a temptation in times of crisis).
In the classroom, be honest about what happened — but avoid simplistic generalizations about “root causes” of terrorism. Of course, many historical and current factors contribute to the rise of terrorist groups in various parts of the world. But on Sept. 11, students need to be reminded that nothing — nothing — justifies the murder of innocent people by suicide hijackers or bombers. Evil is evil. Period.
Commemorating 9/11 in the classroom should also include listening to what kids have to say. Through writing, speaking and art, let students express what they feel and think on this important anniversary.
So much for the day itself. But remembering 9/11 in schools must be much more than a one-day ritual repeated each year.
What more should be done? Schools might take their cue from the promise Abraham Lincoln made at Gettysburg in the aftermath of another great national tragedy. “We here highly resolve,” he said, “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” And then he called for “a new birth of freedom” so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Where will our “new birth of freedom” take place if not in schools? Before Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans seemed to have forgotten (or taken for granted) the civic mission of schools. Now we know (or should know) that renewing that mission is vital to the future of the American experiment in liberty.
Here’s my modest proposal: Let’s make the anniversary of 9/11 an annual “Day of Freedom” in every school — a day each year to celebrate the freedoms that define our nation. And make it a day to take stock of how well our students are learning what it means to be a free and responsible citizen of the United States.
This isn’t about adding more “civics lessons” (as important as those are). It’s about giving students and all members of the school community opportunities to practice democratic freedom.
As a starting point for “taking stock,” here are three questions every school should ask of itself:
Do all members of the school community — including students and parents — have a real voice in shaping the life of the school?
Does the school protect religious-liberty rights, encourage free expression, promote academic freedom, and ensure a free student press?
Are students given opportunities to practice civic virtue and moral character through service to the community and active engagement in civic issues?
Few schools will be able to answer “yes” to all of these questions on this first anniversary of Sept. 11. But if we work at it, by the next anniversary many more schools will have found new ways to educate for freedom and democracy. (For innovative ideas, visit www.firstamendmentschools.org.)
It’s time for America’s schools to move from “teaching in a time of terror” to “teaching for a new birth of freedom.”