Schools take different approaches with 9/11

| Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011

Middle school students who walk the halls of Pennsylvania schools were toddlers when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Elementary students weren't yet born.

For the first group of students with little or no memory of the attacks, teachers are using documentaries, web casts, personal stories and lessons on broad themes to address the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Dave Divelbliss, a social studies teacher at Bellmar Middle School, said some classrooms are participating in a live Discovery Channel webcast with a panel of 9/11 experts held at a school near ground zero in New York City.

"I think it's almost exciting to see the technology, but at the same time (my students) were too young to remember what happened. They're going to get a first-hand perspective of what happened," Divelbliss said. The webcast will discuss how life has changed in the past 10 years and how students can expect their lives to be different.

Divelbliss said most students know the basics of the historic events, particularly the United Flight 93 crash near Shanksville, Somerset County -- about 45 minutes from the Belle Vernon Area School District. With a working base knowledge, teachers can delve into broader themes such as patriotism and why terrorism ultimately fails.

"The 9/11 hijackers were not successful, because we're still standing as a country," Divelbliss said. "It is a day to remember as well, but I think, too, why focus as much on the negative• Focus on the positive -- on the things that have happened in the world since Sept. 11, 2001."

Juniors at Greensburg Salem High School will get to ask questions about 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during sessions in their social studies classes on Monday, said Tammy Wolicki, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the school district.

The district has a terrorism unit in its international studies class that allows students to delve in detail into the attacks, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

At Greater Latrobe Senior High School, students will participate in two days of remembrance with events and guest speakers, including Glenn Kashurba, a child and adolescent psychiatrist from Somerset County, and Oran Eberhart, a police office at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001.

For younger students, though, the 9/11 attacks are pure history. More than 60 million children in America are 14 and younger, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Teachers must grapple with explaining the significance of 9/11 to students who don't remember life before the attacks without getting too graphic or going too deeply into issues youngsters don't understand.

Patricia Ann Thomas, assistant to the superintendent for elementary education for Kiski Area School District, said one teacher plans to make a sports connection to help her fifth-graders understand the events of 9/11.

Teacher Rebekah Stankowski will show an ESPN video and look at the Sports Illustrated issue published just after the attacks, titled, "The Week That Sports Stood Still," which talks about the heroes aboard Flight 93.

"This speaks to the students who are very sports-oriented, and it kind of puts things in perspective," Thomas said. "(And) it's not real graphic, so it's appropriate for elementary students."

Some students will make flags depicting what it means to them to be an American; others will write letters to members of the armed forces, including the Navy unit of Zach Henley, a Kiski Area graduate, Thomas said.

At Fort Allen Elementary in the Hempfield Area school district, students will silently walk around the perimeter of the school gym for a "commemorative silent reflection," said Barbara Rebon, a fourth-grade teacher.

Just after the morning announcements on Friday, each homeroom will view a slide show of patriotic pictures with soft patriotic music playing. Adults positioned around the gym will hold signs in memory of the firefighters who died on 9/11, the children who lost a parent that day, and the doctors and nurses who helped the wounded, Rebon said. As students leave the gym, each will sign a large banner that will be hung in the school.

How to teach 9/11 is a community-centric decision, often left to individual schools and teachers across the country. Most states, including Pennsylvania, have not laid out a specific curriculum.

That means some students likely won't hear anything about 9/11 in their classrooms this week.

At Laurel Valley Elementary in the Ligonier Valley School District, teachers and officials will leave it up to parents to talk to their children about 9/11. No events or lessons are planned for the anniversary.

Wayne Waugh, Laurel Valley assistant principal, said teachers there address topics of heroism, respect and safety throughout the year rather than to commemorate the 9/11 attacks.

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