Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11/01 - Teaching During Tragedy

There are two events in history that are forever linked in my mind to Room 509, the room where I taught high school English.  Those two events are Columbine and 9/11. I was in the classroom teaching when both these events burst upon the national scene and changed our lives forever.

When such terrible tragedy occurs while one is teaching, the role of being a teacher takes over.  I found that I could not allow myself the luxury of fully experiencing my own shock and grief during either event because I had a responsibility to help my students process and understand what was happening without causing them to become even more confused and afraid because of the way I presented myself.  I had to be strong for them.  I had to reassure them that we were safe.  I had to make sure that they knew that I would be in charge of our little corner of the world while I tried to help them make sense of what was happening.  I could not give in to panic.  I could not cry uncontrollably.  I could not go into some sort of stunned shutdown.  I had to manage my classroom and look after my students.

I will never forget the morning of 9/11.  I was at the front of my classroom standing at my podium taking roll for my first period class when I notice a colleague  who did not teach first period standing outside my row of classroom windows that looked out into the library.  She seemed terribly upset, shaken.  She was the drama teacher afterall, but her distress seemed extreme and quite real.  I walked to the door at the back of the room and quietly asked if something was wrong.  "Some SOBs have just flown air planes into the Twin Towers in New York City," she said.  "Does your television work?  Turn it on.  We're under attack."

"I can't just go back in there and turn on my t.v. and watch New York being attacked by air," I said.  "Find out if this is true and what is really happening.  Surely, we will hear from administration if this is true.  Surely, they will come and tell us what is happening."  "Don't be too sure," she said.  "You know how teachers are the last to know."

True.  We were the last to find out what was really going on.  Within no time at all, parents were showing up at the school and taking their kids home.  I had turned the television on by then to try and get some news.  I had decided that it was better that the students heard what was going on from a news source in an environment where I had some control.  I would be able to help them make sense of what was happening.  I asked the students to get out their journals to write about their emotions.  I told them to write down their questions that still lingered as to what was really happening.  I said it was important to record what they were seeing happen.  I encouraged them to write their emotions out.  I offered to read and discuss privately what they had written.   It seemed to be the only thing I could do that would help the students make sense of a world that had suddenly exploded before their eyes.  Perhaps, my approach was wrong.  I tried to keep communication open.  I tried to reassure.  I tried to comfort.  I was not ever told how to hand such a thing in any of my teacher ed classes.

I had not taken into account that our principal would finally come on the P.A. with the following announcement:  "Teachers, you are to turn off your televisions.  You are to follow the lesson plans you have for today.  Any news that needs to be relayed to you and your students will come from the office.  Do not excuse any student from your classroom unless they are sent for by the office.  Do not allow your students to leave your classroom."

He was a former social studies teacher.  Somehow, he didn't think it was appropriate that we watch history being made during class time.  Somehow, he didn't think the delivery of the curriculum should be adjusted to use the current event topic as a writing prompt.  We were to stay on task.  There would be no television watching in his school.

Ironically, in my tenth grade English classes we were to read, Contents of a Dead Man's Pockets that day. (Click on the story title to read the story yourself.)  The story is about a man who goes after a piece of paper that flies out of a window in a skyscraper.  He actually goes out on the ledge of the building to go after the paper.

So, while New York City was under attack, and while the people of New York were facing untold horror, we read about a guy stuck on a ledge of a skyscraper.  I don't know when a story seemed more real than the one we read that day.  I don't know when a story generated more discussion that seemed to really fit what was going on around us.

It is ironic to me that I now see much on the internet on how teach today's students about 9/11.  I am not sure that even now after all these ten years I know that how I handled what I taught my students about what was happening before our very eyes was appropriate.  I don't know that I am able to make sense of what happened that day any better today than I could then.  I only know that I wanted my students to know that when it appears the world is falling down around you, it is important to pull together, talk to each other, support each other, and to help each other feel less afraid.

We all lost a measure of innocence that day.  Life as we knew it changed.  The unthinkable had happened.  I remembered the bomb drills that we had practiced when I was a child in elementary school during the early 50's when we hid under our desks, or lined up in the hallway with our head tucked between our knees.  Those fears of being bombed had been left behind in the 50's.  Now, in the first year of the new millennium, I found myself teaching in a classroom while watching air planes attack the center of New York City.  I still am not sure any of us can ever teach others what that meant to us personally or to our nation.


Grandmother said...

I admire your commitment to your students and your determination to help them process what happened and how they felt about it. It was a good response to an impossibly huge event that affected us all. I imagine their memory of those events includes you and your efforts to help them.

DJan said...

This is a very moving story from that day, Sally. I am glad you did what you did, and I can't help but think, since the whole world changed that day, it was appropriate to be watching it unfold along with the rest of the world. You said it well: history was being made and he wanted you to follow your lesson plan! The story you read was quite the coincidence, though, it seems to me. Hugs to you today.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Sally,

Wow. Thanks for writing this. I think that you handled everything very well. You taught the kids a way to begin to process things immediately.

It is funny how people react so differently under stress and pressure, isn't it?

My kids were at Thurston when Kip Kinkle went on his shooting spree, and he walked right by my daughter in the breezeway on his way to the cafeteria. I will never forget that day; none of us around there will. My other daughter was in the gym and they closed that down, of course, but the teacher there wouldn't let anybody use their cell phones to call their parents. Odd.

Well, we all do the best that we can. I am struck by your principal's reaction the most though.

Thanks so much for stopping by to say hello yesterday, I appreciate it very much.

God bless,

Kathy M.

Dee Ready said...

Like you, Sally, I participated in drills in school back in the fifties. And as with you, these became a thing of the past as I felt more and more secure in my world.

Then 9/11 happened and again, as you said, "We all lost a measure of innocence that day. Life as we knew it changed. The unthinkable had happened."

I don't know rather there is a right or a wrong way to handle teaching in a situation like that. You followed your best instincts. I can't believe that was the wrong thing to do.

I suspect that if you were now able to speak with some of those students, they would thank you for helping them express all the fear coursing through them during that tragic time.

And like ourselves, they would still probably say that they don't understand exactly what or why this happened.

Thank you for your reflection on this. It's from a different standpoint that I'd never before considered. Peace.

Beth said...

This post brought tears to my eyes, remembering what I was doing that day.

You handled your class well and I am sure the students in your class that day are remembering this too.

Lynilu said...

People I knew who were old enough to have understood emotions on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed compared it to 9/11. I can imagine that to be true. That sort of traumatic experience, even from thousands of miles away, is something that is both personal and universal. When people say we will never forget, that is an understatement.

My experience was similar to yours. I was then the director of services to children in residential care and their parents. The children were all "emotionally disturbed," giving a double whammy in the response necessary from caregivers. First by means of being young (under 13), their lack of experience and limited ability to generalize (or un-generalize) many ideas made it difficult. Most couldn't understand the distance, thinking it was close; few had even a vague concept of what the word "foreigner" and other explanatory words meant; etc. Next, the children were emotionally unable to conceptualize the event. Most were either locked in their own personal world of emotions and couldn't understand the terror or they were so terribly traumatized to begin with that this became another personal horror for them

The care staff, too, were often beyond being able to deal with their own issues, let alone give appropriate comfort to the children. We spent over a month defusing the various traumas experienced by the population of our center. And by then the therapy staff was exhausted. We were a long way from the actual event, but compassion fatigue was heavy. I didn't feel like myself again for months.

We lost a lot on that day. Everyone lost peace of mind. We, in the US, had a good long run at it, but it will be more decades before it settles out. Until "Patriot Day" becomes as unrecognized,unimportant in the daily routine as "Remembrance Day" has come to be, we will have this sense of unease.

Sightings said...

We all stumbled thru that event as best we could, emotionally and psychologically, but to be responsible for a classroom of kids is a huge responsibility ... that you seem to have handled quite well. It's strange how, to me at least, 9/11 seems so long ago, and yet the image of where we were and what we were doing is burned forever in our minds. As Dee Ready suggests, it would be fascinating to get together with some of those kids now, and review how they felt, what they remember.

Thisisme. said...

Beautifully written post today my friend, and you are right. I think we all lost some of our innocence on that terrible day. Judging by what you said, I would have liked it if you had been one of my daughters' teachers. As far as I can see, you were doing exactly the right thing, by allowing your students to write down and express their emotions. Thinking of all our American friends today and offering up our prayers.

Olga said...

I was teaching in a middle school study skills class that day. Another teacher told me about the first plane hitting and I assumed it was a terrible accident. "No, we are under attack." The rest of the day was a strange mix of regular school and an eerie sense of "what now?" but the kind of emotional supports that went from colleague to colleague, from adult to kid, from kid to kid, and kid to adult was amazing. I was so proud of my students that day because they got that something very big and important was happening.
Our high school was instructed to carry on as usual and keep all news sources shut down. I thought that it was strange.

LC said...

The best you could do was wonderful! Thank you for a different and moving personal chronicle.

And the principal's edict touched a sore spot that still flares up as a result of my two years teaching English and the secondhand experiences of my mother and other relatives and friends.

Autocratic principals who seem compelled to hamstring gifted teachers by demanding slavish adherence to minute by minute lesson plans may also turn around and allow one and all to interrupt a class to sell tickets, to enlist students (really to coerce them and their parents) in fundraising sales of junk or to remove students from class to line football fields or such. ARGHHHH!

Linda Myers said...

How fine that your instinct was to help your students rather than to seek safety or security for yourself. I think tragedy brings out the best in us.

I remember waking up to NPR and Bob Edwards' reporting as it happened. He did a remarkable job of processing the information even as he experienced it.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

This is another wonder, thought-provoking post, Sally!
I think you handled the situation so well, encouraging students to write about their feelings and perceptions even as events were unfolding. I'm stunned that the principal insisted lessons go on as usual and that history as it was happening be ignored!

Retired English Teacher said...

LC has touched on an important point with her comment. I did not say so in my original post, but we had been warned by our principal that the televisions were not to be turned on during a tragic event. I knew I was walking close to the edge of being found insubordinate in allow my students to witness the story that was unfolding.

I did so because I believed it was best to go to the only real source we had in knowing what was truly going on. We didn't need rumors or second-hand accounts. I also believed that it was best to talk about the event so the students could process what was going on.

We may read about and teach about history after the pundits have given us their spin on the events. It is a totally different thing to be teaching WHILE history is being made and to be responsible for handing the situation in a calm and professional way while trying to deal with our own disbelief and emotion. That is when real teachers teach. Anyone can follow a lesson plan, but not all can teach powerful lessons.

Kay said...

I remember that day with such shocking, sad clarity too. My first graders didn't know what to make of all the confusion of that day. Sigh...

Thank you so much for your visits, Sally. It's just really hectic at our house right now. Nothing like having unplanned for week-long guests after a two-week "vacation." Art and I are beginnnnnning to feel the stress.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

It seems to me that you did exactly the right thing in getting good information and helping students gather their thoughts and feelings. Now that I've read your story, I need to call my daughter. She was teaching middle school English, and I don't remember what she told me about the day.

Arkansas Patti said...

Quite a powerful post Sally. Being wrapped up in my own shock at that time, I never thought about what the school children were going through.
I would have wanted you to have continued with your approach which I think would have helped them more. Trying to ignore such an event was not what I would have wanted a child of mine to attempt.

Linda Reeder said...

I was in the classroom too, with at risk first graders. It was the first day of our reading program, and as the literacy coach, I ran that too. here on the west coast we woke up to the news of planes hitting the towers. Before I got to school I knew the first tower had collapsed. But I had no access to news during that morning. The show must go on.

becca said...

This is a very moving story from that day and you are an amazing teacher for what you did ..hugs

troutbirder said...

An interesting reminder of my own situation and similar response and thoughts. I had moved from high school to middle school where I was teaching a first period 7th grade American History class. The school principal secretary called me & other classroom teachers to suggest turning on the Today show. I did and will never forget the "teachable moments" that followed.

Joanne said...

Innocence is what our kids lost that day...we all did I guess. It was replaced by anger, disbelief, and unrelenting sadness.I remember an unbeleivable urge to scream long and hard.Your students were lucky to have you as their teacher on that horrible day.
Blessings, Joanne

Isabelle said...

That all sounds very sensible to me.

Friko said...

You did what you thought right. It's all we can ever do.

fiftyodd said...

I stood in my kitchen here in Cape Town, watching the second tower collapse in utter disbelief. We were all changed - around the world. Thank you for your personal experience of it.

John Paul McKinney said...

Children should not have to grow up suddenly. Your students were fortunate, indeed, to have you to help them negotiate that transition. By the way, you mentioned "his school" in talking about the principal. Was it really "his" school, and not the students' and the teachers'? Thanks for the beautiful and thought provoking post.

gigihawaii said...

Very interesting post and comments. 9-11 reminded me of my feelings of shock and horror when I heard the principal announce over the PA system that JFK had been shot. Such incredible sadness.

KathyA said...

Very powerful post, Sally.

Things were the same at our high school. Ironically, I had left school at 8:15 because I was not feeling well.

Mage said...

I made a decision early on to keep my life simple on 9/11. It was my birthday that day, and I had great trouble assimilating the horror of it all. Now many years later, I find some comfort in the two videos that I posted on my blog. Something positive about that day.

Jeanie said...

I think all of us have our 9/11 stories, but I think yours is particularly meaningful because it addresses something I'd not thought about -- children in school, what they heard, when they heard it, how it was handled. What a responsibility to have these young people in your charge.

And how ironic that you were reading such a relevant story that day. I don't think any of us can fully grasp the impact of those crashes and how it changed our lives. I remain confused to this day. But our lives did change. And where I see it most is the accepted loss of innocence for the children, who have never known flights without extensive security, and so much more. Lovely, thoughtful post.

Deb Shucka said...

I was teaching that day as well. The towers went down before the kids came in, but we were told it was to be business as usual that day - to not discuss what was happening.

Just one of my many issues with public education.

This is a powerfully written piece, Sally. Thank you so much or sharing.