The scab has hardened but the wound hasn't healed. How many times a day do you pass a faded American flag fluttering from a bridge overpass or a neighbor's porch and not have a momentary flash back to your own raw reaction to the first, stomach wrenching look at that fireball in lower Manhattan. Sept. 11 is history we can still see, hear, and smell.
The first anniversary is looming and every public place in America will be involved. Schools will certainly be high visibility sites of commemoration and teachers will have the responsibility to draw a lesson from history. As a fourth grade teacher, I want to do it right.
Like other elementary school teachers, I look for authentic ways to connect with my kids. During the 180 days of our collective existence, I'll weave a huge web of connections, enrolling my students as accomplices. I'll model ways to connect the dots between the books we read, narratives we write, or the funny, touching, or sad stories that happen to us along the way. I'll coax my 10 year olds to consider the shades of gray that line many of life's choices about friendship, trust, loyalty, telling the truth, what's fair and what isn't.
While there are rafts of ideas about how to commemorate the day, I want my small group to have input into the process and the product. The job for me as a teacher is to insure that whatever we choose to do has some root in my students' hearts and minds. My best tools for figuring this out are the same ones I've relied on for 33 years... asking questions and listening to the answers. These fourth graders sitting around me were only eight or nine years old when they witnessed this event. I want to listen very carefully to get their reality about it and respond to it. Last year, as a nation and as individual teachers, we responded reflexively. This year we can respond reflectively. We're on the front lines again.
Whose thoughts will my kids be talking about? Theirs, their parents, the recent headlines? What will we talk about? Patriotism, tolerance, loss, religion, revenge, reconciliation, stereotyping? What will I say ? How much will I "steer" the conversation? This isn't like other days of commemoration. This history is still unspooling from the reel, we're actors in the film, and we have a stake in the outcome. I'll be listening for ways to frame their thoughts in layers of country, community, classroom, and individuals. I want us to see ourselves as one of the small but significant threads that comprise the many-textured fabric of this nation.
Children haven't been on the planet all that long and they remember most of their lives with detail and conviction. Once they see that I use their collective memory as a way to connect with them, to assess and teach them, they jump right in when queried. Sometimes they even lead the discussion, either to cement their learning or reinforce their sense of "belonging" in the classroom. One of the joys and challenges for me is to be open to the unanticipated twists and turns my creative, sensitive thinkers will uncover as we hurtle down the road to consensus and a mutually rewarding destination.
Even though these kids will have been with me for only several days before the anniversary, they're already under my wing. The bonds we begin to forge in September will last through June, and in my mind, forever. That's history, too. They will be looking at those faded flags long after I've retired. When they do, I intend them to remember the lessons we began to build about the challenges of living in a global community and how we behave in it. We are not just citizens of this small and unique classroom but citizens of our town, of our country, and of our world. Our voices shall be heard.
Paul Tamburello is a teacher who has taught fourth grade in Brookline since 1970.