MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. — In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Anthony Pietrofitta and his students could share their memories of the day that changed America in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history.
They experienced it firsthand. They remembered where they were and how they felt in the days, months and years since. Today, on the 15th anniversary, that shared history between educator and students has faded.
Most of the students who make up his freshman classes at Rancocas Valley Regional High School and other schools across the country were born in 2002, months after the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon.
“We all knew this year was coming. While numerically it’s a milestone, the fading memories have been happening for quite a few years,” said Pietrofitta, the school’s social studies chairman.
For the most part over the last 15 years, teachers and students had lived through the event and had at least some memory of the day. Those vivid memories gave teachers and students common ground to discuss what happened, according to Pietrofitta.
“We have to lay the whole day out for them. They don’t remember anything,” he told The Burlington County times (http://bit.ly/2cvzwon ). “A lot of the things we used to rely on them knowing.”
Most of today’s high school students have no independent recollection of the terror on that clear, crisp September morning, when Islamic terrorists hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. Seven of those victims either lived in Burlington County or had strong ties to the county.
But the lessons of 9/11 are critical for students to understand, educators said.
Patrick Fry, a history teacher at Pemberton Township High School, also has noticed over the last four to five years how students have no recall of the event.
“It’s a little difficult, because I have the visual,” Fry said. “It’s so vivid and clear to me.”
For teachers who lived through it, like Pietrofitta and colleagues Lt. Cmdr. Bert DeJong and Chief David Aupperle, both naval science instructors with the JROTC, the fact that their students don’t have those vivid memories poses a challenge.
“When I begin the discussion on 9/11, I start with a moment of silence to reflect on the tragedy,” Aupperle said.
He said he then shares with his students what he was doing at the time of the attacks to make it more real.
Across the county in the Riverside School District, social studies teacher Danny Stellwag takes that approach a step further and attempts to bring his students back to where he was when the attacks occurred.
Stellwag recalled that 2001 was his second year of teaching and his second-period class was just beginning when the students came in and asked him to turn on the TV.
“I remember the faces of the students in class that day, the questions they asked, the horrifying images on TV, and my attempt to calm them and help them understand what was happening. Of course, I did not know what was going on any more than the students,” he said.
He tries to recreate that day to bring the history alive.
“The lesson will be a revisionist history of that second-period class (on) Sept. 11, 2001,” Stellwag said. “Each current class will view the video. I will provide background information with facts, figures, locations and dates. This will be followed by a class discussion about what happened, the students’ reaction, and how the students watching it happen 15 years ago felt.”
In Pemberton, Fry said he gives his students the opportunity to be journalists to give them a different perspective on learning about the tragedy. In the days leading up, they read newspaper articles about any topic to learn how to structure articles, where to put the facts, and how to write in that style.
Then, about a day or so before Sept. 11, Fry shows them videos so they can gather facts and information from the scenes of the attacks. The students are also instructed to interview relatives who are over 30 years old about where they were that day and what their memories are to get that firsthand perspective.
Still, Pietrofitta said it’s harder to get today’s students to experience similar feelings as those in the past who have personal memories and stories of the day.
“It doesn’t have the same effect on the people who didn’t live it,” he said. “Nothing we can do can really replace that. As hard as we can try, no lesson, no matter how great, can replicate the importance of that event to my generation.”
He compared the 9/11 attacks for today’s students with how he learned about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as a student attending high school in the 1980s and 1990s. While he was able to learn about it as a historic event, Pietrofitta said it didn’t have the same impact it had on his parents and teachers.
Matt Ordog, who is the subject area leader for social studies at Delran High School, said his own recollections come into his teaching of the event.
“Something that you live through, it makes it easier to connect with the students,” Ordog said. “All the different social elements, how people felt afterwards— that’s the challenge that we face, trying to connect them to that.”
Using video from the day, as Stellwag plans to do, is one of the ways teachers are trying to bring the attacks and their impact into focus for this generation of students.
DeJong uses video to illustrate how horrific the event was to the people who lived through it.
In Aupperle’s class, he shows brief three- to five-minute videos from the day, ranging from footage of the twin towers to the Pentagon to Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Discussion follows.
“I especially focus on the courage of the first responders and the people aboard Flight 93 who sacrificed their lives so others may live,” he said.
Pietrofitta said he learned that one of the best ways to make the event seem current is through using footage of reporters and anchors who are recognizable to his students. He said it helps “bridge the gap” for the students and helps them realize it did not occur all that long ago.
Ordog said one of the things he focuses on that students might not fully grasp is the sense of nationalism and togetherness that spread throughout the country.
He and the other teachers also said they use 9/11 as a way to discuss current issues and challenges the country faces that stem from the terrorist attacks and government decisions made in the aftermath.
In Rancocas Valley, Riverside, Pemberton and Delran, the topic is taught as a part of U.S. history courses, particularly in the second section, but the teaching can vary by instructor.
At R.V., Pietrofitta said teaching includes looking at how 9/11 has shaped foreign policy, what changes have occurred to national security since then, and the effect the tragedy has had on international relations and alliances.
In DeJong’s classroom, he attempts to impress on his students the significance of the attack on U.S. soil.
“It is, unfortunately, another day that will live in infamy for America,” he said. “Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which put us in World War II, the attack on 9/11 put us in the War on Terror. It is another Pearl Harbor.”
He said he teaches his students what happened, who attacked us, and why the event occurred.
“We also talk about how our country responded and how we changed— examples of tighter security when traveling, at borders, cyberspace, (having) more first responders and more,” DeJong said.
For Aupperle, teaching students in the ROTC program has a different perspective. One of the main things they discuss are the different careers the students can pursue through service to the country as well as the various operations the military undertakes to defend the country.
“These service careers, both military and civilian, are discussed during 9/11 to illustrate the importance of having people in the field to serve and protect the American people,” he said.
Fry said at Pemberton his message to students is how America changed from before the terrorist attacks.
“My biggest message is, back before 9/11 we were like a sleeping giant,” he said. “We thought no one could attack us.”
He said he covers how the U.S. has changed policies to focus more on security, and limited some of the freedoms citizens had before the attacks in an effort to protect the rest of the country.
In Delran, Ordog said they often use 9/11 as a jumping point to discuss terrorism around the world.
He also likes to emphasize the individual stories of people from that day, whether victims or first responders, so students have more personal connections to the event.
Ordog and his wife last year had the chance to visit the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, which includes the names of all those killed, and that’s what prompted his idea to make the lessons more personal.
“One of the things that I took away from that was the human element, the human part of when the towers fell,” he said.
At Riverside, Stellwag said his lesson usually prompts discussion about the role of terrorism in the world today.
“Students are worried about terrorism and always ask many questions whenever it is discussed,” he said. “Critically and logically examining a topic enables students to gain an understanding of the world they live in today.”
Rancocas Valley Principal Joseph Martin specifically wanted to leave an impression on his freshman class about 9/11. He spent the summer putting together a documentary, “9/11 R.V. Remembers,” which included staff interviews about that day and what they remembered.
On Friday, the freshmen gathered in the performing arts center to watch the film, while the other grades watched a stream of it in class.
“We wanted the whole school to stop,” Martin said.
Information from: Burlington County Times (Willingboro, N.J.), http://www.burlingtoncountytimes.com