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A new generation learns about 9/11
Students equate attacks to Pearl Harbor in 41
The flag on the front of Riverbend Elementary School is made up of small paper squares that each student worked on as part of a 9/11 project. - photo by Tom Reed

America stood still the day the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the day a group of airplane passengers drove United Airlines Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field, the day government workers ran from the Pentagon folding in around them.

"We will never forget," the motto reads.

But 10 years later, what about a generation of children who weren't alive or old enough to remember in the first place?

It's a challenge teachers and parents face every year in the post-9/11 world.

"Most of the kids, they don't even know there were multiple attacks," said Scott Gaffney, a history teacher at Flowery Branch High School. "It's a sobering day for some of the kids. I've had some students get choked up because they've got family in the military or their friends or family went to fight because of this."

Gaffney's high school sophomores and juniors began class Friday by looking at a political cartoon depicting Uncle Sam rising above the ashes of New York City. Gaffney uses the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoon published shortly after 9/11 as a reflection piece.

"It's got Uncle Sam's legs being the Trade Center towers," he said. "I feel like the kids really kind of get the big picture. Uncle Sam is being portrayed as that sleeping giant that when stirred can make things pretty bad."

Lessons from fateful day
There are Georgia Performance Standards for U.S. history and fifth-grade social studies that include lessons of 9/11.

Shaun Owen, social studies coordinator for the Georgia Department of Education, said the standards are in those grade levels because of the mature content and because they fit better. Fifth-graders learn about U.S. history after 1865, whereas other elementary grades and middle grades have different decades to learn about.

The world history book Gaffney uses ends with the fall of communism. His U.S. history book is where the instructional issue arises.

"They title this ‘1992 to the Present.' That's a pretty big chunk of history," Gaffney said. "It's got the capture of Saddam (Hussein) mentioned and even a photo from the war, but this is it. There's talk of (the Homeland Security Department) not just facing budget cuts but maybe even being eliminated over the next 10 to 20 years. There's four paragraphs to try to understand such a complex issue as terrorism. That's it. That's a pretty big problem."

Another issue is the focus on standardized tests, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said.

"I see 9/11 as one of those things where that defines how we are as citizens. That's what education ought to be about," he said.

Gaffney's students also watch a 2002 documentary featuring footage of the attacks that "walks them through" the day's events.

"It really makes you think about how a tragic event can bring your whole nation together like everyone did the day of 9/11. The thought of it touches your heart when you think of how many people joined hands to help clean Ground Zero and help the lost loved ones but it also makes you sick to your stomach," said Brianna Cooper, 15, a student in Gaffney's class.

Cooper called the video "skin-crawling."

"There's a couple of scenes where there's desperate footage of some of the people that got caught just above the floors of the planes hitting jumping out of the window. It's pretty incredible," Gaffney said.

Kerry Stewart, a political science professor at Gainesville State College in Oakwood, said the only way to make 9/11 and the War on Terror hit home is to show the graphic pictures.

"It's a shock value thing ... but sometimes that's what we need," he said. "We're a very complacent nation and we don't think about it if it doesn't affect us."

Literature helps younger students
For the younger audiences, the challenge is finding footage and curricula that are more age-appropriate and won't frighten students.

"You want them to know it's part of our history," said Leah Hulsey, a second-grade teacher at Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy. "We focus on ‘yes, there was a tragedy but our country came together.' We focus on the heroes, which they can relate to."

Laney Farkas, also a second-grade teacher at Wauka Mountain, said teachers use children's literature.

The books "New York's Bravest," "Fire Boat," "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" and "September 12" showcase what it was like during the attacks at a grade-appropriate level.

"We relate it to bullies, that they were trying to bully the United States," Farkas said. "We all think it's a real special thing to be able to give them some of their first exposure."

Gaffney's students now were probably in pre-kindergarten when the attacks occurred.

"They may remember bits and pieces of something here and there, but most of them, they don't remember any of this stuff," he said. "My first few years (teaching about 9/11), the kids remember exactly where they were. They remembered exactly what happened, details of panic and a few days that some students didn't go back to school or were always calling family to make sure they're OK. The further that these kids get away from it, there's definitely less of a comprehension of what happened."

A memorable birthday
Autumn Nettles, a student at Ava White Academy, turned 1 year old on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We were up in Pigeon Forge (Tenn.) celebrating," her mother, Anita Nettles, said. "We weren't up yet and she was toddling around. She walked over and turned on the TV and that's how we found out what was going on."

After that, Anita Nettles and her firefighter husband made it a point to talk about the attacks on 9/11 with their daughter.

"Around the age of 3 or 4 we began telling her that her birthday was a very special day," Anita Nettles said. "We told her some men from very far away hated America. They had mistaken ideas about what God wanted them to do and they attacked us. We always talked about the heroes of the day."

Anita Nettles said she wanted to impart on Autumn that though the terrorist attacks were sad, there was still a reason to celebrate. Otherwise, she said, "the bad guys" would still win.

Students at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School will commemorate 9/11 Monday with a campuswide assembly at Wood's Mill Academy. As part of the assembly, each child will be given three paper clips.

"We're going to have a chain of 2,966 paper clips," Fair Street Principal William Campbell said. "It will represent the 2,966 people who died as a result of 9/11."

About 400 paper clips are colored to symbolize the police, firefighters, New York transit employees and other emergency personnel who perished in the attacks.

Lesson involves research
Advanced Scholars Academy fifth-graders at Riverbend Elementary School were charged with a more in-depth approach to learning about the attacks. They had to interview someone who remembers 9/11 and then create a research project and display on an associated topic, such as the Pentagon, rescue dogs or firefighters.

"I could get up there and lecture all day, but by going and interviewing someone ... it made it more personal. By doing the investigating, they learned about something they wanted to learn about," said Amy Cochran, a fifth-grade teacher at the academy.

Gaffney said students tend to equate the terrorist attacks to those on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but "this is totally different."

The difference between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, said Col. Michael Pyott, a professor of military science at North Georgia College & State University, is that there is no clear enemy.

"It's hard to attack a group of entities," he said. "This is much different than World War II. It's not something we could conquer, turn around and build back up. This may not have an end in sight."

Pyott said because his classes are taught to the Corps of Cadets, it is easy to talk to his students about 9/11 and the war on terror.

"Overall this generation is aware of what's going on, but they don't have a personal connection unless they know someone who's being deployed," he said. "We've been at war now for 10 years. The military's been fighting but the sacrifices at home haven't really been felt. The nation hasn't really been at war."

"The more years that go by, the larger the gaps are going to be. ... I think it's so important that kids understand what happened. As teachers, it's our responsibility to make sure the history's not forgotten," Hulsey said. "We're the generation that's going to be able to share that moment."