SILVER SPRING – Before he showed a video Friday of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center, high school teacher Keith Adams asked his students to write down an answer to this question: “What would you do in the last hour of your life?”
They wrote. He pressed play. His darkened classroom at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring filled with horrifying images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The visuals were from a short, inspiring video about a 24-year-old who spent his final hour selflessly helping strangers escape from the second tower before it collapsed.
Across Maryland this week, teachers in elementary, middle and high schools took different approaches to incorporating the Sept. 11 attacks into their lesson plans.
Adams, a social studies resource teacher, did not dwell on the historical specifics of the tragic event. Instead, he used the 10th anniversary to teach his students about the importance of helping others and rising to meet difficult challenges.
“The spirit of Sept. 12 is really what you want people to understand,” he said in an interview after class.
In the 10 years since the terrorist attacks, educators have wrangled with how to explain them to groups of young people who were born after they happened or were too young to fully understand them. Education policy experts disagree about what students should be shown, and what lessons are appropriate for students of different ages.
Melanie Killen, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, said that because high school students today were under 10 when the attacks occurred, it’s important that they develop a full understanding of such an important moment in American history.
“They’ve heard so many rumors and bits and pieces. So they need to know what exactly happened,” she said.
But elementary and middle school teachers must be especially mindful when showing graphic images of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to young students, said William Strein, associate professor of counseling at the University of Maryland.
“They may be seeing for the first time the video of the planes crashing into the towers … it’s important for them to understand that these things they’re seeing are replays,” Strein said. “I’m not sure if teachers should be doing much of that at all,” he said.
In Montgomery County, elementary school teachers took the opportunity to talk about the role of first responders in the aftermath of the attacks, and discuss the importance of serving your community, said Kevin Yates, a content specialist for the Montgomery County Public Schools social studies program.
“We look at possible ways for students to contribute to their community,” he said.
In designing the thought experiment he used in his class Friday, Adams had a similar goal in mind. He wanted his students to understand the importance of serving their community in times of need, of helping strangers and showing courage and honor in trying circumstances.
It seems that his students got the message.
“When I think of Sept. 11, I think of a lot of people who got involved,” said Tonia Jones, 17, a student in Adams’ class. “You can make a difference by doing something.”