Questions, confusion in classrooms over bin Laden
Sixth-graders in Jacob Cole's social studies class relived the terror of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks this week in a lesson intended to help them understand what the death of Osama bin Laden means.
The students at Ivy Preparatory Academy charter school near Atlanta covered their faces as they watched the images of jets flying into the World Trade Center. The voices of frightened newscasters and terrified onlookers brought them to tears. A photo of Osama bin Laden evoked gasps.
Cole designed the lesson to help the students understand why some Americans were celebrating in the streets for the violent death of a man on the other side of the world.
"I totally think he deserved to die," student Colby DeWindt said. "He killed a lot of people, but I agree we shouldn't celebrate someone's death."
Teachers in classrooms across the country this week have been delicately trying to answer questions and explain the significance of bin Laden's death to a generation of students that have grown up with faint or no memories of Sept. 11. Many had questions about why the United States had been attacked. Some were scared of retaliation.
"If there were a terrorist attack right now, I probably would move away and get weapons," Samantha Maldonado, a student in Cole's class, wrote in one assignment.
For young students, bin Laden's death is likely to be the first event of global significance etched into their memories, like Sept. 11, the first moon landing and President John F. Kennedy's assassination were for generations before.
"They didn't know much about this character, since most of them hadn't even been born when Sept. 11 happened," said Candida Gil, a fourth-grade math, science and social studies teacher at Jesse J. McCrary, Jr. Elementary in Miami. "This was a major opportunity to make sure they understood the implication."
Gil said she wanted her students to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion in interpreting the event. She and a colleague, Jasmine Bowles, discussed topics like religion and how, just as there were many denominations within Christianity, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban did not represent all of Islam.
"All we wanted to be was objective and present the facts," Bowles said.
Dr. Nadine Kaslow, an expert in child and family psychology at Emory University, said children were likely to be confused by images of people jumping up and down over someone's death, and scared by clips of Osama bin Laden.
"With little kids, this is kind of sophisticated for them to really get in their heads," she said.
Nevertheless, bin Laden's death is likely to leave a strong impression.
"You remember those major markers," Kaslow said. "You pay attention to how adults handle it. You pay attention to what people think matters. It has a huge impact on you."
Many parents have been surprised to learn how much their children do know or remember about Sept. 11 — and how they have been affected, even if they didn't live it.
Darla March, a military reservist in Miami, said the topic came up with her 9-year-old son after she and her husband were discussing the day's headlines. He didn't know who Osama bin Laden was, but he did know about the terrorist attacks.
"I think that the presence of terrorism is ubiquitous in his life," she said. "It's something he's always known, that there are terrorists that the United States is fighting against. For him, this wasn't a monumental event as much a reality of his whole existence."
Haylie Feller, a middle school social studies teacher in Boca Raton, Fla., showed her students a video of President Barack Obama's speech announcing bin Laden's death Sunday, along with video clips of news coverage for background. They talked about how the U.S. was reacting, what it meant for the country, and the students' own feelings about what had occurred.
"We were hoping that they would understand the importance of the event, and understand that they were literally witnessing history," Feller said.
Cole's students attend an all-girls school of mostly minority students, some of whom are Muslim. He said he worked hard this week to be sure those students don't feel singled out or insulted by class discussions.
"I wanted to make sure to communicate that we're doing all this to illustrate tolerance and understanding and show how extreme terrorist viewpoints are," said Cole, who's in his first year of teaching. "I'm trying to keep an eye and make sure everybody was comfortable with that discussion."
Cole said his students seemed aware that bin Laden's death was a major news event, but lacked an understanding of its significance.
"We were so little then, so we don't remember," said Norcross sixth-grader Diona Julius. "When we have kids, they won't know about it. That would be sad."