By Jonathan Camhi
Many school children today are too young to remember Sept. 11. A great deal of the responsibility for telling them what happened that day, and why it happened, falls on teachers in classrooms across the country. The events of Sept. 11 are deeply interwoven with many complicated issues – such as terrorism and Islamaphobia.
Mary Ellen Salimone, a former consultant for the New Jersey Department of Education who lives in North Caldwell, New Jersey, found that many teachers had little experience or guidance on how to teach such sensitive material. Inspired by the loss of her husband, John Patrick Salimone, who was in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, Salimone started The 4 Action Initiative, the first Sept. 11 curriculum for children K-12.
Donna Gaffney, a child psychologist from Summit, New Jersey who specializes in dealing with trauma-related issues, advised the curriculum writers on how to create lesson plans that deal with the more challenging issues surrounding Sept. 11. We spoke with them at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, which donated staff and resources to the creation of the curriculum.
Salimone got the idea for the curriculum while on a family vacation to Ireland after Sept. 11 with her three children, Alex, Aidan and Anna. Salimone’s cousin is a member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in Belfast and gave Salimone and her children a tour of the Parliament building. One of the building’s walls commemorates the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland by listing all of their names and the dates of their death. When Salimone’s children – whose only experience of terrorism was on Sept. 11 when they lost their father – saw the wall, one of them said, “Oh my God! Mom look, Osama bin Laden has been here also!”
“That was one of those light bulb moments, and it was so clear,” says Salimone, “if my own kids who lived through this – and we talk about it at home a lot – if they have no idea what happened and why, then the vast majority of American students must definitely feel the same way.”
Salimone and Gaffney were working together with Families of September 11, an organization that supports family members of the victims. They brought together a team of curriculum writers with help from the Liberty Science Center and The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, and funding from the Families of September 11. The team developed a curriculum of more than 130 individual lesson plans dealing with topics related to Sept. 11 called The 4 Action Initiative.
Gaffney says the curriculum’s name stemmed from the need to teach children how communities can come together in response to traumatic events because it makes children feel that they are not powerless in dealing with a global threat like terrorism.
“It was that action part that we really wanted individuals – children and teachers – to embrace,” she says.
The projects curriculum writers were divided into three teams that wrote age-appropriate lesson plans for elementary, middle and high school under the direction of Dr. Paul Winkler, who created a Holocaust and genocide curriculum for the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
Rather than a course on 9/11, each of the lesson plans is designed as a stand-alone lesson that can supplement what the children are already learning in class. For instance, one lesson plan looking at the history of terrorism examines the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and can be incorporated as part of a history class on the French Revolution.
In late 2009, 62 New Jersey teachers volunteered to pilot some of the lesson plans in their classrooms. Salimone says that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
“Most of the feedback that we got from teachers who used it was that they are just so happy to have something in hand and a place to go to find material for this,” she says.
The entire curriculum will be launched later this summer on the website of The New Jersey Commission for Holocaust Education. All of the lessons will be free of charge and available to teachers nationwide. Some of the lesson plans have already been released on the website of 9/11 Day of Service, a project that is asking people to spend the day of Sept. 11, 2011, in service to their community to commemorate victims of the attack.