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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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When Students Have No Memory of September 11

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Memory is an interesting thing. At school we try so hard to get students to remember things, but some memories are indelibly imprinted without any effort at all. For example, I have a vivid memory of where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001. Everyone that I have asked also has a vivid memory of this tragic event. They can remember the other people in the room, and their reactions. They can remember colors, surroundings, and even sounds, as if they were using a video recording.

Most importantly, we all still feel the weight of anguish and frustration from those cowardly acts of terrorism, as well as an outpouring of sympathy for those men, women and children who found themselves directly in harms way.

Other memories of the history I experienced are sometime poignant and other times fuzzy. For example, in 1968, I remember my family watching the television hoping my brother would not be drafted to go to Vietnam (he wasn't selected). I have vague memories of watching Neil Armstrong jump off the ladder of the Eagle Lander in 1969. In 1972, when I was in sixth grade and 12 years old, I recall the Apollo 16 lunar rover traipsing around the moon -- oh, and the American flag that sticks out as if the wind were blowing. Interestingly enough, I don't remember much about the Watergate scandal that lasted until I was 14, but I remember the gas shortages of the seventies because I had to mow lawns and needed to stand in line to get gas for the mower. Into adulthood, my memories are clearer than my youth, such as Reagan's victory over the cold war.

But none of those memories are as powerfully etched in my memory as the vision of the airplane crashing into the towers. The emotion of that memory has engraved it permanently in our minds and hearts.

I was three when John F. Kennedy died, and I don't remember it at all. I have heard people talk about it, how bad it was, and what it meant to the nation. I read about it in history class. I saw videos about it. I even learned about the ongoing controversies, but in reality, it held no more emotional sway than did Elvis' death. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that we have a generation of students who were three years old when the Twin Towers were destroyed. That means that they are 13 years old now.

For my youngest children, ages 14 and 17, 9/11 was a terrorist attack that other people talk about. Intellectually, they know what it is, but they do not feel what it is. They do not feel the shock and associated anger that lives and breathes in Americans who were old enough to understand and feel in 2001. They do not feel the same agony and sympathy for the victims and the fallen heroes that the older generation feels. It is not a vivid memory for them because they did not experience it.

Researchers Geoffrey Caine and Renate N. Caine explain in the their book, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, that the brain has a memory system called "locale" that combines where we are, emotions, and the situation to form permanent memories -- none of which have to be "memorized". In another blog, I mention that memorization is a powerful tool for memory, but in an era of high-pressure testing, it has become the default for learning. Isn't that what happened with Sputnik and the space race? (It was before my time.)

As we honor the heroes and mourn the victims of September 11, the memories of their lives cause us to pause and reflect on the blessings and challenges of living in a free nation. Because of this event, our lives and the direction of our futures have been altered.

As teachers we have an obligation to help the new generations who may have intellectual knowledge of this tragedy to begin to feel the emotions along with the facts. Here's a website that might help. Dewey had it right when he proposed that education must be experienced, and not just lectured. Just as the experience of 9/11 gave us indelible memories, "experienced" learning can do the same.

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