Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teaching About 9/11 (in English Class)

During my senior of high school, my mother, sister and I moved to an orange farm in Ojai, CA; before that, we lived in Ridgewood, NJ in Bergen County. Three years ago, I moved back to NJ and began teaching English at Paramus Catholic HS - just a few miles away from where I grew up... a full circle.

Bergen County is a suburban area that is heavily populated by Manhattan commuters; and before my family's cross-country relocation, both my parents worked at what's now known as ground zero. Sadly, many of my students lost family members in the tragedy.

The beginning of our school year always inevitably corresponds with the anniversary of 9/11. This year, we had orientation on Thursday (September 8th) and started classes on Friday - two days before the 10th anniversary of when everything changed in America.

While I could have spent the first day of classes jumping right into Unit 1 - an introduction to the ancient texts of Mesopotamia, I felt it was important to recognize the magnitude of 9/11.

After I began the class with a prayer - remembering all those affected by the terrorist attacks, I asked students to raise their hands if they had ever read The New Yorker before - not one of my 118 seniors raised their hands.

I explained that The New Yorker is basically a literary magazine, filled with a datebook, cartoons, short stories, essays, fiction and poems; and that it would provide an important literary voice for reflecting on the 9/11 attacks. Then, I passed around my advance copy of The New Yorker's 9/11 edition (reason #637 why I'm not a Kindle fan - passing around a Kindle version of The New Yorker to students whom had never seen it before just wouldn't be the same).

I then read from an essay in the magazine's 9/11 edition: "Speechless", by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Literary Non-Fiction Essay

"Speechless" starts with a personal anecdote - the author recalling his young son crawling into bed with him and his wife after having a nightmare. When the author asked his son what the nightmare was about, his little boy was at a loss for words:

"At the time, I thought he didn't want to describe it: putting a nightmare into words - saying it aloud and sharing it - would only expand the terror. But I've come to wonder if he simply didn't possess the vocabulary. And if that failure of language was at least part of the problem."

The author uses his son's inability to articulate what was so frightening about his dream as a metaphor for his own inability to explain what it was like living in New York on 9/11:

"How could this world be so unlike the world that I believed I was living in? I can't describe it. Do I not want to describe it, or do I simply not possess the vocabulary?"

(Here - I snuck in a quick review of metaphor v. simile.)

The piece concludes with a reflection on the power of language - not only to make sense of the senseless, but as its own form of heroism:

"Is there anyone who hasn't played out the nightmare of having been trapped in one of the towers? Is there anyone who hasn't wondered if he would have had the superhuman composure to call and comfort a loved one? Dozens of phone calls home were placed from the towers between the moment that the first plane hit and the time that the north tower collapsed. When words should have been most impossible to find, there were words of grace, and dignity, and consolation. Words of fear, and words of love. There's nothing to learn from this, except everything."

After we discussed "Speechless" and the importance of having the "vocabulary" to adequately tell our own stories, I asked the class if anyone had seen photos of the planes crashing into the towers. This time, every hand went up. The fact is, you couldn't turn on a television leading up to the 10th anniversary without feeling like you were trapped in a time warp - the newsreels looping a never-ending reminder of terror.

I then asked my students if any of them knew what the City was like immediately following the attacks... none of them did.

First-Hand Account (Interview)

I then shared an interview of a 16-year-old girl that I heard on the radio on the way to school that morning. She was asked what she remembered most as a 6-year-old living blocks away from ground zero. Ash. She remembered ash covering everything - and how she begged her parents to buy her a purple plastic umbrella that she carried with her outside every single day for three years. She also said that she taught herself to read, just so she could read the weather report every day - so she would be prepared if something like this ever happened again.

I told my students that when I first heard the interview, I didn't make the connection - but then it dawned on me. This little girl associated an environmental change (ash) with panic and sadness. She didn't see the towers crashing, and had no way of linking cause and effect; all she knew was ash was falling from the sky - like rain - and if she had some advanced warning when the ash was coming again, she could feel in control of her situation.


Then I lead a brief discussion about how poetry could also be a way to gain a sense of control through self-expression. Next, I held up the tenth anniversary edition of Poetry After 9/11, An Anthology of New York Poets, and I read a short excerpt from the Forward, written by editors Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians:

"There were, in the immediate aftermath, poems everywhere. Walking around the city you would see them - stuck on light posts and phone stalls, plastered on shelters at bus stops and the walls of the subway stations. In neighborhood newspapers the letters-to-the-editor pages were full of them. Downtown, people scrawled poems in the ash that covered everything. And on brick walls of police stations and firehouses, behind mountains and flowers and between photos of the dead, poetry dominated... Prose wasn't enough. There was something more to be said that only poetry could say. Everybody, apparently, knew this."

We then discussed as a class what the editors meant by: prose wasn't enough. (Here, I managed to sneak in a mini-lesson about genre, and the relationship between form, purpose and audience as well as the importance of cultural context in analyzing literature).

Finally, I shared one of my favorite books - which isn't a book at all in the traditional sense... rather it's a book of postcards entitled Haiku on 42nd St, A Celebration of Urban Poetry & Art . Each postcard is a photograph of a haiku poem that found its way onto one of the empty porn marques of Times Square.

After shocking the socks off of my students by describing how Times Square used to be a very different place (filled with shady hawkers, prostitutes and drug addicts - not $200 show tickets, strolling tourists and sidewalk seating), I defined the word "gentrification" and briefly mentioned some of the mixed social connotations of the word.

Holding up my postcard book, I explained that the photographs captured a moment of transition in Time Square's history - just before one of the most dangerous areas in NYC became one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world. Perhaps these unsolicited haikus were one last rebellious dare - challenging the magical land of Oz (or Wicked) that was soon to follow.

For homework, students were asked to brainstorm about a moment of change in their own lives that they might use for their college essays. I reassured them that their "moment" didn't have to be as dramatic as 9-11, it just needed to provide a little snapshot of their character for the admissions officers to see.

I will end this blog the same way I ended my first day of 12th grade World Literature classes - with two 5-7-5 snapshots of New York City ...

9/11: Remember * Honor * Reunite.

Additional 9/11 Links:

Gathering Place - remembering those with disabilities on 9/11: This blog reflection is especially powerful for me, because my mom is disabled and this was one of the first things she said after the planes hit ... "what about the gathering place?" I didn't get it - she did. When you are disabled you are supposed to wait at a certain location for help in case of an emergency - all those people with disabilities (save one blind person whose dog led him out) died at the designated "gathering place" waiting for help that never came.

Baseball symbolized resiliency after 9/11: The nation turned to baseball after 9/11 for a sense of normalcy and healing; this article captures some of the incredible moments - including Fenway Park's famous 7th inning stretch when the entire stadium erupted in "New York, New York" during their first home game against the Yankees after 9/11.

National September 11 Memorial (WTC): A guide to a national tribute of remembrance and honor to the 2,983 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.

Prayers, Vigils, Remembrances Mark 9/11 Anniversary
: A listing of events in Washington, PA and NY to remember the victims of the 9/11.

The Sept. 11 Attacks, Remembered - PICTURES
: A series of pictures of international and national remembrances.

For My Teacher Friends... Concepts Taught In This Lesson

Vocabulary: gentrification; connotation
Literary Terms: simile; metaphor; genre
Writing: relationship between purpose, form and audience; cultural context; voice
Poetry: haiku, postmodernism
Big Idea: there is nothing more important than stories - and nothing more powerful than having the ability to skillfully tell our own stories to others

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