How to Teach About 9/11 Without Oversimplifying

Published September 12, 2011

As global educators, we are entrusted with the challenge of making the incomprehensible understood.

The Los Angeles Times ran a nice cover story regarding the challenge that 9/11 presents for teachers and students.  

Ten years ago, I remember announcing the news of the Twin Towers terrorist attacks to my 9:00 a.m. 9th grade history students.  We cried. We were stupefied, brought low and unified in our grief.  I remember repeatedly answering the barrage of questions with the most honest answer an adult can give a child: “I don’t know.” 

Over the next few weeks, the kids’ questions multiplied and revealed the depth of our collective confusion: “Why do they hate us?” “What’s a Muslim?” “What did we ever do to them?” “Are the hijackers really going to be rewarded with 72 virgins when they get to heaven?”

Desperate to convey a complex understanding of the multi-faceted tragedy, I found an excellent source:  9/11 As History Project. Created by teachers, the project gets to the essence of the tragedy: Motive. Herein are extended lessons, activities, enrichment and a concluding project for a holistic understanding of relevant history preceding 9/11. Whose history?  The curriculum explores how U.S. foreign policy since the Balfour Declaration has shaped attitudes, geographic boundaries and distribution of resources in the Middle East. 

While the killing of civilians is a horror without justification, students understand that the “What did we ever do to them?” question has answers reaching back generations. 
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Ultimately, we want to use 9/11 to impart lessons of civilized conflict resolution. The cycle of revenge has no winners. Students learn this critical lesson on our educational tours to the countries of our former adversaries. One cannot spend time with the innocent victims of warfare and fail to comprehend the futility of vengeance. It is here that tragedy becomes instructive: how do we to teach kids to dissolve the enmity between “us” and “them?” 

One Answer: Peace-Conferencing. The tragedy of 9/11 inspired a visionary high school teacher, Kristen Druker, to innovate a synthesis of international relations and technology. Check out this incredible web-based global conflict resolution platform.  

Druker has created a brilliant classroom instructional tool in which students act as parties to real-world conflicts, using methods of true-life diplomatic peace-negotiations. Watch them in action:  Students understand that discovering mutually-acceptable solutions to complex world problems is far more powerful than imposing unilateral force of will.

What Che Guevara can teach student travelers

Published September 2, 2011

Che Street Art, Cuba

“Do you know who Che Guevara is?” The TSA officer checking our boarding passes points his question and finger at my 10-year old son. It is Milo’s T-shirt that inspires this conversational interrogation. “Che Guevara was Fidel Castro’s Chief of Staff. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” Milo stares at the guard. I can tell he’s intimidated by his authority.

I’m annoyed and unimpressed. How dare this man pose political questions to my child?

“How old are you, young man?”

“Ten”

“Ten, huh? Are you old enough to dress yourself?”

I narrow my eyes. And bite my tongue.  The guard is more quirky and loud-mouthed than aggressive.  Regardless, he’s holding my driver’s license, boarding passes and the power to obstruct our departure.  

“Yeah, well…” he goes on increasing his volume for the benefit of other travelers, “Castro told Che Guevara to spread his ‘revolutionary message’ in Mexico… but he did such a lousy job, that he killed people and robbed a bank just to get enough money to survive. Did you know that, young man?”

The T-shirt is a child’s size, Asian-knock-off of the ubiquitous Che icon saturated in backpacker tourist shops across Latin America.  The irony, of course, is that it is being worn with no political voice whatsoever. On our last educational adventure to Vietnam, I bought the shirt for one-dollar in Saigon’s equivalent of an American Wal-Mart store. For the global traveler on a budget, the T-shirt represented a suburban-moms’ bargain-find, a cartoon character superhero printed on cotton. Cheap. Stain resistant. It was also the only clean shirt left at the end of our vacation; I had asked Milo to substitute it for the filthy “I Support Haiti” fund-raising Tee he had initially donned. Of all the silent horror stories our clothing betrays, the emotional agitation this child’s Che T-shirt has generated in this Travel Security Administrator proves instructive.

My boy doesn’t answer the man, but instead, crosses his arms and looks down. I place myself physically between him and the guard’s inappropriate questioning, and retrieve our documents. I choose to say nothing. We usher ourselves through the intrusive survey of our belongings. Shoes off. Conveyor belt. Cameras. Body scans.
“A real loser,” the man keeps spewing after we’ve turned our backs on him. “That Che Guevara guy was a real loser. He was a terrorist. You should think about that next time you get dressed in the morning.”
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“Is it true, Mom? Was all that stuff he said true?” Milo’s eyes are wide and darting about nervously. Suddenly vulnerable, he clutches the Che decal on his T-shirt, an effort to conceal it from itinerant passengers marching across the concourse. I’m a mix of irritation and pragmatism, compelled to fortify him against the awkward experience of an authority figure exercising undue power.

“Honey, you know that Che is a hero to a lot of people. Cubanos think he’s a good guy. He’s the symbol of resistance against oppression.” When I lead educational community service programs for American students and teachers, we discuss the many depictions of the Argentinian Martyr throughout Havana: Che adorns street graffiti, statues, museums, silhouetted iron facades, body tattoos, paintings, magnets, baseball caps, photo books, earrings and infant “onesies.” 

What does this well-fed, middle-class, American airline cop know of a people’s pride in a nationalist struggle for sovereignty?

To Cubans, Che is a unifying force, an imaginary hope of the social utopian vision upon which the Revolution is based. Like all ideologues, his biography has its blemishes. For his admirers, the fact that Che exercised the use of violence (Malcolm X-style “by any means necessary!”) in his signature zealotry for justice (“Patria o Muerte!”) contributes to bolster his appeal.  For his critics, Che represents social disruption, chaos and a frustration with the failure of US policy to end Fidel Castro’s 50-year tyranny. Neither side feels apathetic towards Che’s image. Except those who have not yet drawn their lines of battle; today, in the airport, the indifferent provocateur is merely a boy.
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As I provide explanations for why it’s ok to wear the T-shirt, struggling against the urge to give this TSA guy a swipe of my Mama Bear claws, I have an “aha!” moment. This is precisely why we are passionate for educational travel in the countries of our former adversaries: to provide civil opportunities for kids to master cross-cultural dialogues of differences. It is through these experiential “teachable” moments that we may sharpen our investigation of warfare.

Like every conscientious parent and teacher, I’d like to spare all children from targeted and misdirected hostility.  And yet, as we increasingly value “global competency” in our youth, I celebrate opportunities to empower kids to investigate the complexity of human conflict through student travel. We need to explore why an icon may serve to represent both evil and good for different cultures. It’s the essence of perception. It’s the beginning of understanding. It’s a necessary step towards peace. 

These opportunities are sometimes found in the confluence of our not-totally-globalized-not-always-free-speech of fashion. How can one person feel nothing, another a surge of pride and yet another uncontrollable rage at the sight of an American flag? What emotional freight does a symbol hold for different cultures? Ideally, the messenger may soften the message: adding a reasoned voice of clarification. Here’s how can we teach our kids to communicate with authority figure who has introduced a contentious dialogue:

We want our kids to know and be able to articulate the facts:
“Che ‘Ernesto’ Guevara was a medical doctor, a military strategist, and a Marxist who helped overthrow the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Bautista in Cuba, 1959.”

Assess the facts through comparison, contrast and analogy:
“Many of our American national heroes have unsavory backgrounds that we ignore.

Use the facts to make reasoned judgments:
 “I think that the good things Che did for people outweighed the bad. I understand that you feel differently.”

Ask definitional questions that expose assumptions:
“Would you be telling me what a ‘loser’ I have on my T-shirt if it were a picture of an American flag?” 

Speak truth to power:
“It’s inappropriate that you are discussing ‘terrorists’ and ‘politics’ with underage passengers in your purview as a TSA official. Please stop.”

The aptitude that our kids develop for understanding differences across cultures is a powerful source of conflict resolution and a measure of our continued civility as a species.

Why the image of Che Guevara’s caricature should arouse this man to such a breach of professionalism, directing disdain towards the wearer of a child’s T-shirt, is not something worth investigating. If he keeps it up— and we’re doing our job—someday, one of our kids will set him straight.