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Schools struggle to teach 9/11 to students too young to remember

The death of Osama bin Laden was the ultimate teachable moment, but it has left teachers, parents and educators scrambling to tell the story of Sept. 11 and the career of the world's most wanted terrorist to a new generation of schoolchildren — many of whom were not even born when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With no standard curriculum in place, teachers across the country have been forced to develop their own methods to talk about the traumatic events of the past decade in the classroom. Many have turned to privately created lesson plans, videos, classroom discussions, designs for mock memorials and the use of newfangled tools such as Google Earth to chart the attacks and the patterns of terrorism around the globe.

In a sign of the task facing the nation's educators, Internet giant Yahoo reported last week that searches for "Who is Osama bin Laden?" skyrocketed after the terrorist mastermind was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan. Sixty-six percent of those searches came from 13- to 17-year-olds. Young teens flooded Twitter with similar queries.

"Who is Osama Ben Laden? is he famous? am i the only one who dont know who he is?" one teen tweeted in the days after the attack.

The burden is especially heavy for teachers in the Greater New York and Washington areas, as well as near Shanksville, Pa., where the plane attacks orchestrated by bin Laden hit home in an especially personal way for students.

"Unless a curriculum is put in place in districts across the country, [the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks] will become more and more obscure" to students, said Maria Hartmann, a special-education teacher at West Morris Regional High School in Chester, N.J.

As in other schools across the country, Ms. Hartmann said her district has no formal guidelines for discussing the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath. She has developed her own strategy, which includes asking students to write essays as if they experienced the attacks firsthand.

Like Ms. Hartmann, New York City teachers are also largely on their own.

"We don't currently have any formal guidance for schools to teach about 9/11," Matt Mittenthal, deputy press secretary for the New York City Department of Education, told The Washington Times. "However, we are currently working with the 9/11 Memorial Museum to develop lesson plans in anticipation of the 10th anniversary this coming September."

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani joined relatives of 9/11 victims and educators organized by the New Jersey-based September 11th Education Trust in 2009 to unveil one of the first comprehensive education plans related to teaching about Sept. 11.

Among the materials: archival video footage, testimony by witnesses and public officials, a history of terrorism and Afghanistan, and interviews with Mr. Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was the junior senator from New York.

In Shanksville, where a fourth plane headed for Washington crashed after passengers rebelled, educators try to strike a balance. Thomas McInroy, superintendent at Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, said history and current-events teachers are free to discuss Sept. 11 as they please, but are advised to avoid dwelling on it every day.

"We try not to pay more attention to it ... than another district would," Mr. McInroy said. "[Students] remember it. They've lived it their whole lives. They're begging to have a normal American life. That's hard to do."

On the other side of the country, Los Angeles eighth-grade history teacher Brent Smiley said he has learned that it is best to promote a more open-ended conversation about Sept. 11 among his students.

"If I come in with a preprogrammed way of doing things, it doesn't work nearly as well as letting [the students] take it where they want to go," Mr. Smiley said. "The questions run the gamut. Each class will have completely different questions."

Mr. McInroy said classroom conversations in his district take on a more personal tone. This year's graduating class was in second grade on Sept. 11, 2001, and he said he frequently rebuffs attempts by radio stations or other media outlets to interview Shanksville students.

The district doesn't shy away entirely from its place in history. On Sept. 11 each year, Mr. McInroy said, high school students attend memorial services. The district also has a memorial garden dedicated to the victims and their families.

While students in Shanksville, New York City and Washington, D.C., have strong connections to Sept. 11, other high school students may not be as familiar with the attacks and the subsequent events of the war on terrorism.

Ms. Hartmann argued that the Yahoo search numbers are evidence that teachers and school districts need a better approach.

She said she doesn't have "a plausible explanation" for why uniform Sept. 11 curriculums are not in place, and noted the lessons of that tragic day and the events that have followed can play a key role in instilling a sense of patriotism in students.

"There are lessons [of Sept. 11] to be taught ... no matter the discipline, be it science, math, social studies, English," Ms. Hartmann said. "A good teacher is able to teach in the moment. That moment is now."

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