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With no 9/11 guidelines, students lead discussions

By BY KAYLA BELL - KBELL@VICAD.COM
Sept. 10, 2011 at 4:10 a.m.

Drew Westfahl

HISTORIC TURNING POINTS

The following are listed in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills guidelines as "turning points." Students are asked to explain their significance.

1898 - Spanish-American War

1914-1918 - World War I

1929 - The Great Depression begins

1939-1945 - World War II

1957 - Sputnik launch ignites U.S.-Soviet space race

1968-1969 - Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and U.S. lands on the moon

1991 - Cold War ends

2001 - Terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon

2008 - Election of first black president, Barack Obama

Source: Texas Education Agency

Drew Westfahl was a student at St. Joseph High School when the Twin Towers fell Sept. 11, 2001.

Ten years later, Westfahl is in the same school, this time teaching students about the terrorist attacks.

"It is an indelible moment in my mind. I can remember everything that happened that day," Westfahl, 25, said. "It's definitely much more tangible for me, and I think for the kids as well."

But now that most school-age kids were either young or not born at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Westfahl said he is starting to see some of the connection fade.

"For them, it's a news story or it's a recording they see on TV. I think they still feel the effects, and it's certainly more real to them than an event like Pearl Harbor, but you can already see there's a distance that begins to occur," he said.

Some lesson plans for teaching 9/11 are on the Internet, but, according to Education Week, fewer than half of U.S. states include 9/11 in their standards for social studies education.

The Victoria school district approaches 9/11 in its U.S. history classes, which are in fifth, eighth and 11th grades, said Lynne Kutach, district curriculum coordinator for social studies and English language arts.

"We want them to remember," she said. "Normally what they do is ... just have time for students to reflect and share."

But beyond that, the terrorist attacks are part of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, characterized as a "turning point" in history.

The "turning point" is a topic Westfahl said his students focus on in particular, with most of their conversations evolving organically.

"We'll introduce a topic about, you know, civil liberties as a result of security measures, and the kids themselves usually end up having very good discussions in and of themselves about," he said.

With only one state, New Jersey, offering a statewide curriculum, Westfahl said 9/11 lessons rely less on strict standards and more on discussion.

"Usually from a historical perspective, it usually takes a bit more time to kind of develop a narrative everybody agrees with because if you're not careful, you can get too close and political," he said.

Victoria teachers are also mindful of presenting facts instead of personal opinions about the attacks, Kutach said.

In response, Kutach reiterated how kids themselves tend to drive the discussions.

Teachers "want them to go into those deeper thinking, higher-order questioning skills and really think about, inform their opinions," she said.

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