Students need to know about 9-11

It’s hard to understand the modern world without knowing something about 9/11 — a seminal event that happened before today’s 6th graders were born.

At TLC Middle School, we will learn about 9/11.

We will approach the topic in a thoughtful way. We will consult with parents about our approach before we get started, and it will likely take a week — or more — to address the questions students ask. We will give students a chance to process and reflect on 9/11. But it’s important that students take the time to learn some basics about 9/11.

And it’s not as though we will learn about 9/11 for a week and then “end” that unit — it will keep coming up, and students’ understanding will become more nuanced as they learn more about the world.

The front of today’s digital edition of the New York Times featured this picture and caption:

afghan soccer

Odd as it sounds, this article — about a soccer match played on 9/11/13 — could be a good way to introduce middle school students to 9/11/01.

Because the article is ostensibly about a big soccer victory, the students can easily relate to it.

We could even show students this 2-minute clip of Afghanistan’s victory over India to get them into the story:

But as we get deeper into this story, it raises compelling issues.

I imagine most curious middle school students who read the caption above will wonder a few things:

1) Where is Afghanistan?

2) Who are the Taliban?

3) Why would they hold public executions in a soccer stadium?

Now let’s examine the first two paragraphs of the article, titled Raucous Scene Grips Afghan Capital: Soccer Euphoria

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Olympic Stadium in Kabul has not seen this big a crowd since the Taliban used the place for public executions, with attendance mandatory.

No coercion was needed on Thursday to bring tens of thousands of delirious fans here to greet their national soccer team on its return from winning its first international championship. The underdog team stunned India, the defending South Asian champions, in a 2-0 victory in Katmandu, Nepal.

Woah!  So not only did the Taliban hold executions — they required people to attend.  If I’m a middle school student, I want to learn a bit more about the Taliban.

Let’s look at one more paragraph from the article:

Few things could better symbolize the drastic social changes in Afghanistan since the Taliban era, when soccer was banned, even for small children. During the group’s five-year reign, and most of the 10 years of civil war that preceded it, Afghanistan did not even field a team in international competition.

Okay, so let me get this straight: Afghanistan fought a civil war for a decade that the Taliban apparently won [I wonder what started that civil war?]  Then the victorious Taliban banned soccer for five years — including soccer played by little kids.  I wonder what else the Taliban did while it was in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001…

And why did the Taliban lose power in 2001?

This is where a teacher would explain that the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban in response to 9/11.

Yes, we’re going to have to deal with 9/11 if we want to understand the modern world.

It’s going to come up.

Here’s an example —

not iraq

When President Obama compares a potential intervention in Syria to US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, students need to know what happened — basically — in Iraq and Afghanistan so that they can evaluate his comparison.

In order to make those two conflicts intelligible, students need to know some background of 9/11.

A powerful TED Talk called The Museum of You that describes the memorial being built at Ground Zero (do students know what “Ground Zero” is?)  At the end of the memorial, people will be asked to grapple with unanswerable but important questions, such as:

“How can a democracy balance freedom and security?”

“How could 9/11 have happened?”

“How did the world change after 9/11?”

Students need to know enough about 9/11 to have preliminary answers to those questions — and that will take more than a week of unpacking. But it will be time well spent.

Let’s get back to soccer for a moment — here are five paragraphs from a Washington Post article about the same Afghan victory, titled Afghans celebrate soccer win over India, a rare victory after years of war.  My comments are in ALL CAPS.

1) “After 30 years of war, the world thinks of Afghanistan as only having wars and violence. Today, we are showing that our young men can become world champions,” said Khalid Sadat, a fruit-seller who was watching the chaotic celebration in the downtown Shar-i-Nau commercial district.

30 YEARS OF WAR — THAT’S A LONG TIME!

2) Even without putting it into words, everyone in the streets seemed to be celebrating far more than a soccer victory. It was as if something had snapped after years of conflict, oppression and grim daily routines of survival. Suddenly, Afghans had an excuse to go crazy, and nobody was stopping them.

THIS SEEMS TO COMPARE TO DUKE OR UNC OR NC STATE WINNING AN NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP — PEOPLE SPILL OUT INTO THE STREET AND GO CRAZY AND WELCOME THE TEAM BACK HOME. BUT IT’S AN EVEN BIGGER DEAL IN AFGHANISTAN, BECAUSE OF THE 30 YEARS OF WAR

3) Horns honked nonstop, and car radios blasted Afghan pop and patriotic tunes. Dancing crowds overwhelmed traffic circles as grinning police looked on. Flares and rockets arced and sparked overhead, and celebratory gunshots rang out, but no one flinched.

4) Hundreds of people used their cellphones to record the event or called relatives outside the capital so they could hear the excitement. There were no women on the streets, a reminder of Afghanistan’s conservative social mores, but several people noted the ethnic diversity of the crowds, seeing a hopeful sign for national unity.

WOW — NO WOMEN ON THE STREETS — THAT’S DIFFERENT — I WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE “CONSERVATIVE SOCIAL MORES” IN AFGHANISTAN.

5) It was not lost on the celebrants that Wednesday was the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that had branded their country a terrorist haven and plunged it into war once more. All day, national television stations here replayed film clips of New York’s twin towers falling and featured solemn interviews with experts about the event.

Okay, the article mentioned the twin towers falling. Students need to see that footage (how many students have seen it already, I wonder?) and begin to understand it in context.

Again, this is not something we’d just do on the spur of the moment — a thoughtful look at 9/11 will take more than a week, and we have to be very sensitive as we approach the topic.

What students know about 9/11 will vary from student to student — some may know next to nothing about it, while others may have lost family members or friends in the attack. It will be a difficult week — or more — of learning, but if our goal is to develop empathetic global citizens, they have to know about 9/11.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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