The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have provided a much-needed wake-up call to the nation's schools concerning the teaching of current affairs. Immediately following the tragic events of that day, teachers began staying after school, brainstorming and consulting the Internet about both terrorism and Afghanistan -- subjects suddenly of vital importance.
Penn State University education professor Murry R. Nelson explains that current texts "are not only out of date, in many cases they pay little attention to the areas of concern. Similar problems arose in World War II and the [Persian] Gulf War, though little attention was paid in textbooks during the Vietnam War to Vietnam."
History texts can be updated in due course. Of immediate concern to teachers was how best to deal with confusion and shock among children whose world may seem to have been turned upside down. Teachers encouraged middle- and high-school students to find their own ways to cope. Students across the nation responded with thousands of fund-raising activities to help the victims. They organized blood drives, decorated classrooms and collected teddy bears for bereaved children. Fifth-graders Amy Sheehy and Dani Owens wrote a song, "My Country," and then cut a CD with their school choir in Waco, Texas, to raise money for the relief efforts.
Now, three months later, teachers are struggling to fit an unexpected war into what sometimes seems to be a curriculum set in stone. As Nelson puts it: "Teachers are scrambling to find a way to address the many issues involved without unduly frightening their students."
How much time should be devoted to the war is a burning question. If you add something, what do you subtract? There may be no easy answers, but teachers do know one thing for sure: "Students are hungry to hear about what is going on," says Vickie McElroy, a seventh-grade social-studies teacher in Roswell, Ga. "The first thing I did after September 11," McElroy says, "was to give them a short history lesson on modern Afghanistan -- the Soviet occupation, the Taliban takeover, the drought, the women's issues -- so that they would be more prepared to understand the discussions that we have continued to have."
This Georgia teacher now requires her students to keep a Middle East journal where they write three entries each week about articles, news broadcasts or books they have read concerning the ongoing war.
Other schools took to heart President George W. Bush's urgings to get back to teaching the Constitution and the principles of freedom in a democratic republic. When Bush asked schools to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance for one day, many didn't stop there. The New York City Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution requiring that the pledge be recited in all public schools. Even in liberal Madison, Wis., the school board rescinded an earlier vote that banned both the pledge and singing of the national anthem as too "militaristic" and a religious intrusion (see "One Nation, Under God," Dec. 17).
Teachers began to rethink, retool and reshape their lesson plans to fit recharged U.S. patriotism in a changed world. In metropolitan Washington, as in New York City, schools responded to the impact from the attacks. In the District of Columbia, three teachers and three students died onboard American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, and a Northern Virginia teacher lost her husband on that same hijacked flight. A student and her family from nearby Prince George's County, Md., also perished in the crash.
Little wonder that schools in the Washington area quickly became proactive. At Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., an advanced-placement government class regularly discusses the impact and progress of the war against terrorism. At Phelps High School in Washington, students have been required to write term papers on the attacks, and teachers and administrators throughout the metropolitan area are hard at work on how best to incorporate war issues into the curricula. …