Teaching Beyond September 11th
Today we talk about how to teach about and beyond September 11th. My guest, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, says 9/11 is often taught in American schools as a one day event, focused on loss and mourning, heroes and first responders. Together with a global team, Ameena has launched the Teaching Beyond September 11th curriculum to change the narrative.
Ameena Ghaffar Kucher is a Senior Lecturer in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education division at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania and the director of the international educational development program. She also hosts the podcast, The Parent Scoop, which she started with her family during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Citation: Ghaffar-Kucher, Ameena, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 255, podcast audio, September 11, 2021.https://freshedpodcast.com/ghaffar-kucher/
Will Brehm 1:20
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, welcome to FreshEd.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 2:32
Thanks for having me, Will.
Will Brehm 2:34
This is pretty strange because you have a podcast as well. And this is the first time you’re on my podcast. So, thanks so much.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 2:40
This is very true. But I’m excited to be here.
Will Brehm 2:42
We’re not actually here to talk about your podcast. We’re here to talk about this really amazing curriculum that you and a pretty interesting team have put together. And so, I want to dig into some of this. I mean, the curriculum is all about thinking about 9/11, and how we teach about 9/11, and beyond inside school curriculums. When did you actually realize that there was a problem with how schools teach about 9/11?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 3:04
Yes and no. I mean, it’s a moment that’s been long coming, I guess. I have been doing research with youth from Muslim communities in schools since 2003. And as part of that work, I’ve observed a lot of social studies classrooms, and seeing how certain topics in the curriculum get covered, and realize that there’s often a lack of preparation, or a lack of nuance when it comes to teaching any topic related to Muslims, or the Middle East region, or any unit that covers Islam. And so, there’s really a lot that’s left to be desired. But I would say it’s really more recently, as a parent, that I’ve seen how my own kids are learning, especially around 9/11. My older son is in his last year of high school, so that’s 12th grade, and I’d say that once he hit Middle School, which is sixth grade here, that’s when it really struck me how ill prepared teachers are to teach about 9/11, or the fact that they don’t talk about what happened after 9/11, and that there’s just so much disinformation out there. But just one more thing I’ll add is that I think it was really a very recent realization that most students in schools today, and even some of the teachers and new teachers have no lived experience of 9/11. In fact, you have people maybe who’ve lost a family member -a distant family member, or close family member- or have been impacted by 9/11 because they’re from communities that have been impacted by it. But for most kids, and even some new teachers, there is really no reference point to what this event was. And that really highlights an issue that needs to be addressed.
Will Brehm 4:34
So, for your son, what did he learn about 9/11? Like, how is it even discussed currently?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 4:41
So, generally, it’s usually that week of school that the teachers will have a day of reflection, and they’ll talk about where they were on 9/11. And what do you know about 9/11. But it’s very much focused on that day, and very little talks about how 9/11 essentially changed the world.
Will Brehm 4:56
So, it’s sort of like 9/11 was this tragic event for America and we should mourn and reflect. It was a one-day event in a sense. So, how did it change the world in your opinion? So, if you start from that perspective, what are the big topics and ideas that you might want to focus on instead?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 5:14
I think that the impact of domestic and foreign policy in a number of countries is certainly worth talking about because these policies then trickle down to things like media representation, bias, racism, hate, violence. But also, how they impact our civil liberties. A lot of the domestic policies following 9/11, not just in the US, but also in the UK, Australia, many parts of Europe have impacted people from Arab, Muslim, South Asian communities, and they’ve had ripple effects on people who weren’t even originally targeted by these policies. So, in the US, you have things like the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, also known as NSEERS, there was the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which led to things like the No-Fly List. And collectively, these policies have laid the groundwork of a massive surveillance system that has really been mimicked in other parts of the world as well. So, you have PREVENT in the UK, CVE programs in Australia. And you know, recently we had the Muslim and African ban. And while you might think that this was a personal pet project of Donald Trump and his associates, the fact that it was allowed to pass and was upheld by the Supreme Court really kind of shows the ways in which Islamophobia in this country has laid the groundwork for such policies. And again, you know, we’ve seen similar policies in France, in Denmark, in India. And I think another important point to sort of remember is that concurrently with all of these domestic policies, at least from a US perspective, we’ve been in a constant state of war. I think a lot of people don’t realize that we’ve been at war for 20 years, and the Afghan War, which began on October 7, 2001, even though it’s technically supposedly come to an end three weeks ago, it’s hard to say with what’s really happening there, because it’s so recent. But you know, we’ve had wars in Iraq, we’ve had the drone wars that have impacted so many countries, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. And the ripple effects of this is the displacement of millions of people. And then those people come and are seeking refuge in other countries, are being turned away. But I really think that these policies have impacted the collective imagination of how we imagine Muslims to be. And so it trickles down to how they are framed in the media, both news media and popular culture, but also our reception to refugees. And I will say that the one up-shoot to all of this is that we’ve also seen an incredible rise in activism. There’s been so much organizing by Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities. I think we owe a lot to the Black Lives Matters movement as well. And I think that these young people who have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, are standing up and saying, “Enough is enough. We want to take this narrative back. We want our full rights as citizens, and we’re linking our quest for justice with other solidarity movements, and other people who have been marginalized”. And I think our curriculum really connects to all of these themes.
Will Brehm 8:03
Right. So, in a way, 9/11 was this inflection point that dramatically changed so many elements of American society: the economy, the military, as you said, the imagination that people have in general, and their attitudes towards one another, and some of the racism that might come out. And then some of these reactions to that. What about the past and sort of the history before 9/11? In a sense of how did we even get to 9/11? Is that something that could be taught or is taught currently?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 8:37
So, I think that is something that’s taught. I’m not sure if it’s connected to 9/11 in that particular way. I think students definitely do learn about the Cold War. And that’s something that we’ve also taken up in the curriculum. So, even though it’s called Teaching Beyond 9/11, the first module actually looks at really how the US got involved in Afghanistan in particular. And so that’s a particular module where we have four lessons. The first one looks at how Afghanistan has sort of been the center of imperial projects for a very long time. The British, the Russians, and of course, the Americans. The second lesson really focuses on the Cold War. And then the third lesson looks at how 9/11 was sort of justified. And one of the justifications was that we need to save Afghan women. So, it’s a lesson that focuses actually on Laura Bush’s address to the American public where, I think, she’s the only First Lady ever to have used the weekly radio Presidential Address to appeal to the American public. A nd how she tries to use this idea about saving Afghan women as a justification and to get buy-in for Bush’s war and the war that has been upheld by subsequent presidents as well. And then the fourth lesson looks into: could this war have been avoided. Were there opportunities where we could have avoided this particular war. So, that’s just the one area in our curriculum where we look at this. And I think it does get taken up in US curriculum but just from what I know from my son’s experience, he spent a lot of time in the 1800’s and they get maybe as far as World War One, but I think there’s a bit of short shrift by the time teachers get to post-World War Two, there isn’t a whole lot of attention or time left.
Will Brehm 10:16
Yeah, isn’t that the American history being taught in this linear progressive sort of way. And I remember when I was in high school, I think we got as far as the Vietnam War. That was sort of nothing ever happened after the Vietnam War in high school.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 10:32
Yeah. And that’s troubling because there’s while most people may think that this is impacting just particular communities, there are ripple effects that actually impact all of us.
Will Brehm 10:48
And so, who is this curriculum for, in a sense? Like, are you expecting schools to pick it up? And would it be taught in particular subjects? Because I can see some of what you’re talking about cutting across so many subjects.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 11:01
Yeah, I mean, our target audience are high school students, particularly 11th and 12th grade, but also early college. And one of the reasons why we picked this particular age group is that we thought that we could get into a little bit more nuance with these topics. But also, these young people are close to voting age or already are at voting age and we thought that it was really important for them to have this information from this curriculum. It’s a part of being an informed citizen, I think where we’re contributing to that. But I do think that the way the curriculum is structured, it’s very flexible. It doesn’t have to be taught sequentially. Teachers can pull out any modules that they want. And even if they have younger students, there’s a framework at the end of each module with our essential questions and our key understandings. And a seasoned teacher will be able to look at those and say, “Okay, how can I modify these for my age group”? So even this question about should we be giving up our civil liberties in the name of security? That’s a question that you can start talking about in sixth and seventh grade. The students might not have the same depth of understanding of those things, but you can sort of lay the framework of those kinds of conversations.
Will Brehm 11:08
And has the curriculum been taken up by any schools yet, or teachers, that you know of?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 12:15
The curriculum is really new. It’s been out for two and a half weeks, and the data that we have shows that it has been downloaded in 25 states across the US and over 20 countries worldwide. And does that mean that people are actually teaching it? I don’t know. I think it’s just too early to say. But what I can give you is an example from my son’s social studies teacher. I don’t know if this had been her original plan, or if our curriculum inspired her, but for the week, around 9/11, instead of saying what happened that day, like they usually do, she actually gave students a project to think about the impact of 9/11. And they each had to pick a topic to research. And my son showed me the resource list that she was giving students and a lot of our curriculum resources were on there. So, I do think people -I mean, that’s just one little anecdote. But there has been a lot of interest. I’m actually going to be speaking to some folks right after this call to talk about bringing this curriculum to some of the independent schools in the Pennsylvania area. So, I think there’s a lot of interest.
Will Brehm 13:15
Seems like there’s fantastic resources. And as you said, it’s quite flexible for teachers and schools to sort of pick it up and use it and adapt it to their own individual needs. How was this curriculum even created? Like who was behind it? I mean, I’m talking to you, but there must be a whole team behind this massive curriculum.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 13:35
There is a whole team but I will give you the backstory. So, two years ago, Deepa Iyer who is a civil rights activist, and somebody who I’ve known for a long time, and I’ve worked with before, reached out and said that we should really do something for the upcoming anniversary. So, this was, I think, pretty sure it’s 2019. And we had a lot of ideas. We thought about doing an anthology with young people stories about how they’ve grown up in the shadow of 9/11. But then we settled on this idea of a curriculum. Partly because I’m a curriculum person and so that’s my bias. But we really thought that this was where we would actually have a huge impact. If we could get this curriculum into schools, it would really make a difference. I have an incredible team of RAs (Research Assistants) who have been working on this project. And so, I also have Deepa Iyer as a partner, and also Fariha Khan who directs the Asian American Studies Program at University of Pennsylvania. But it’s really our partners who have brought their expertise to the table and have created these incredible lesson plans. Choosing these partners was a really deliberate process. We wanted to include people who were engaged in these topics, either through their scholarship, or activism, or even through their lived experiences. And all of our contributors are either people of color or they’re Muslim, or they have been directly impacted by 9/11. And so, I think that’s particular richness or nuance to the curriculum.
Will Brehm 14:55
So, it’s been a few years in the making. Did you target the 20th anniversary of 9/11, or was that just sort of by chance?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 15:04
You know, like I said, when Deepa Iyer and I had that initial conversation, it was thinking about the 20th anniversary. And so, the first thing was trying to find funding, and we had a really hard time to get funding for this project. So, we actually didn’t get funding until March of this year. So, it’s not been a long time in the making. It’s been a mad rush over the past six months. And it’s one of the reasons why we’re doing a gradual release of the curriculum just pragmatically. But we also thought it made more sense, instead of just having everything and overwhelming teachers with this huge curriculum in September, that if we gradually release it, the other advantage of that is it keeps the conversation going. And that’s really what one of the key goals of this is, we want people to talk beyond 9/11. And really just think about how this has shaped our world.
Will Brehm 15:53
Why do you think it was so hard to get funders until just a few months ago?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 15:56
It’s a million-dollar question, Will and I have no idea. I don’t have an answer to that. And even the funder, it’s actually an internal fund at Penn that we got. They’re Penn Global and they really focus on global things. I think it was hard to convince people that this was actually a global event. I mean, they totally got it in the end. And they’ve been incredible. They’ve been really, really supportive and couldn’t ask for better funders. But it was a bit challenging.
Will Brehm 16:22
Do you think America sort of in general, is ready to have these conversations that you’re beginning? I mean, it makes me wonder if some of the funding challenges might hint at some larger issue of America still hasn’t really reflected or gotten over potentially, what 9/11 means. And when I say America, perhaps I mean, those people in power that are making decisions on curriculum, for instance.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 16:45
I think, when it comes to challenging topics of any kind, we are usually never ready for them, right? I mean, the best example of that are just the conversations around race and slavery and the impact of that. I think we’re never ready for them but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be having them, right? We have to have the information out there. We have to push and advocate for these kinds of conversations to happen. And I think that’s what the curriculum is doing. And there are other projects out there that are doing similar kinds of work as well. Brown University recently released its Costs of War project, which is just this incredible project that has been years in the making, that’s talking about just the financial human life costs of these wars that the United States has been fighting for the last two decades. It’s incredible.
Will Brehm 17:35
It is interesting how certain groups have to push these conversations even if that means some people are going to be very uncomfortable. But I also wonder, since you study, education, and curriculum. You know, it’s sort of a truism that curriculum is quite political. And there’s decisions as to what gets included or what gets excluded. And it’s never a sort of a neutral decision. There are people behind the scenes making these decisions for different reasons. Reflecting on the curriculum that you’re working on now, with your team. How have you navigated some of these politics as to you know, what should you even include in a beyond 9/11 curriculum? And were there topics that you decided to exclude in a way?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 18:17
So, I think you’re 100% correct. Curriculum is always a political enterprise. One of the things that I haven’t mentioned yet is that the way that this curriculum is designed is that each of the 20 modules is grounded in a particular year between 2001 and 21. So, Module 3 is grounded in the Iraq War, Module 10 is grounded in the Arab uprisings, which actually connects to occupy wall street, which has also had its 10-year anniversary, and so forth. But these weren’t just arbitrary dates or events that we just picked. Once we had this idea for this project -going back to fall 2019, I worked with two research assistants, Brandon Darr and Maryann Dreas-Shaikha, and what we did was we conducted a media analysis, but of all news related to 9/11 between 2001 and at the time 2019. And so, we have this massive timeline database and hundreds of entries. And we looked at that and tried to figure out: a) what the key themes were but also what were salient moments over this time period. And one of the things that we found was that there’s a disproportionate amount of media coverage compared to violence committed by non-Muslims. So, a lot of media coverage is on things that Muslims have done. And this is corroborated by research that’s done by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. So, we looked at these trends in this database, we also thought about what was missing. And that’s how we came to our six themes. So, the curriculum is organized around these six themes, US Domestic Policy, US Foreign Policy, Democracy and Rights, Media and Representation, Public Opinion, Perceptions and Anti-Muslim Sentiment, and then finally, and really importantly, focus on Solidarity and Social Justice. And the other thing that we did was that we also created a database of existing curricula that was related to 9/11, to see what was already out there. And we found a lot of single lesson plans, a lot of focus on first responders and sort of heroes. And all of that’s important but there wasn’t a lot out there, especially at the high school level -there’s a little bit more at the college level in terms of syllabi that are available- there wasn’t a whole lot out there about this aftermath that we’re focusing on. So, we created this curricula map that we thought touched on these important issues and on these salient events. And I think it’s safe to say that there really is no curriculum out there like this. By the time we’ve rolled out everything we will have over 50 lessons. And I think because it is sort of a work in progress, I think that allows us to sort of also hear back from people about what things are missing and what we still do need to add in. But right now, a lot of what we have in there is finding people whose expertise linked to these areas, and just things that we thought were really, really important and that were kind of connected to 9/11, just a little bit more directly than some other things.
Will Brehm 21:11
And in the team, as you were sort of discussing these themes and lessons, was there ever disagreement? And how do you get a whole team to agree on exactly how a curriculum should be structured and organized? I mean, that’s a really fascinating sort of question that perhaps a lot of researchers don’t get to experience firsthand in a way. We might research it after it’s happened but going through that process and living it, what was that like?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 21:39
I will say, again, because of our very rushed timeline, and just the way people have been coming on board, it’s not like we’ve sat down and said to our entire curriculum team, this is what we’re going to do, what do you think? It’s more like just working individually with these groups but obviously Deepa, Fariha, and I have had conversations. We’ve had conversations with the RAs who’ve been supporting the project as well. And I think there’s just always been agreement on these are the topics, and then there’s just been back and forth between the folks giving the curriculum support and the folks writing the curriculum to just make sure that we’re sort of on the same page. So, there are little things like, some people might use the term, the Muslim ban to talk about what is known as the Muslim ban but the folks that actually created that particular module, which is Module 17 made a case of why we need to call it the Muslim and African Ban. And so that’s something that we’ve changed throughout the curriculum. And nobody has pushed back on that. But just those kinds of little things, I think, also matter a lot.
Will Brehm 22:39
What is the reason?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 22:40
Because a lot of the countries that were impacted in the subsequent versions of the Muslim and African Ban are actually in African countries. And they’re not necessarily Muslim majority countries, they’re just countries with large Muslim populations but they’ve also been kind of folded into this ban as well.
Will Brehm 22:59
I always love hearing the stories about specific words or phrases that have to be debated and their meaning and the implication of using them. And I’m sure that happened quite a bit in this process just like any process. I think of it often like the international level where there are treaties and there’s UN Declarations or the SDGs, a lot of it is about specific words that all member states have to agree on. So, another thing about curriculum studies is that we, as researchers, we understand that there’s usually some sort of implied meaning in curriculum. How would you sort of understand the implied meaning of the curriculum that you’ve been working on? Like, have you reflected on that at all?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 23:43
I think we’ve been really explicit about what this curriculum is about. And it’s right on our website. We say that we want young people to understand the ongoing effects of the aftermath of 9/11 including hate violence, profiling, surveillance, and the global War on Terror. We also want people to understand that anti-Muslim racism is not a post 9/11 project or phenomenon. It’s something that has a really long history, especially in the United States, but even in other parts of the world. I think anti-Muslim racism, or what’s popularly known as Islamophobia is grounded in anti-Blackness and it’s grounded in the fact that so many of enslaved people that were brought over in the 1600-1700s and onwards, estimates are 10% to 30% of these people were Muslim. And so, I think Islamophobia just has this long history here and we want people to understand that. And we really want people to sort of take action. So, there’s a lot about, we want you to think about this, whether it’s just teaching somebody about what you’ve learned, or actually taking action and trying to change the world. So, I think we’re pretty explicit about those things.
Will Brehm 24:48
When I visited the website, it was totally explicit. It’s the first thing you read when you come to the website. So, in a way, I really appreciate it. And I started thinking about, wow, what if all curriculum that I read had the same Sort of like “This is what we’re doing”. Because you don’t often read that anywhere. And so, there’s a lesson there for other curriculum designers.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 25:08
I think we really want people to understand what they’re getting into. We’re not shy about that. We want you to understand that this is what this curriculum is about. And this is why it’s important. And it’s important not just for communities that have been impacted by 9/11 but for all of us.
Will Brehm 25:22
Thinking about the future. Everything goes well with the take-up of this curriculum, as you’re obviously working quite hard now to get different teachers in schools to use it. What might the impact be? Like what would be success for you, in a way?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 25:35
So, I’m somebody who doesn’t imagine that I’m going to change the world or anything like that. For me, the small wins really add up. And I think that if teachers even begin to extend these conversations beyond that day, start thinking about and teaching students, young people about the impact, the aftermath, how it’s changed our lives. And it happened so long ago that there are things that we now take for granted, or things that we’re so used to that we don’t question anymore. Travel, right? We didn’t have to take our shoes off. We didn’t have to have those little baggies with the four ounces of liquids. It was just very, very different. And so, if teachers are even just taking up a couple of these lessons, that to me is a win. Because collectively, I think that will change how people will be thinking about these issues, and hopefully will want to learn more. One of the things that we know is that -coming back to the Afghan war just because it’s so present on my mind that the Afghan war was overwhelmingly supported by the American public. I think it was like over 88% or something like that were in support of it. And yet now recently, Gallup did a poll and I think about 50% of Americans can’t even identify Afghanistan on a map. They don’t even know that we’ve been at war for 20 years. These are things that people need to know because people need to vote. And they need to know what is actually being passed wherever you are, like what your representatives are pushing forward. I think that’s just really important.
Will Brehm 25:36
You know, 9/11 definitely had not only an impact on America and its citizens but on countries worldwide. I mean, not only Afghanistan, and Iraq and the neighboring region. Going back to your example of flights and taking your shoes off, I mean, that’s something you have to do in every airport pretty much now. I just wonder, will this curriculum be useful, do you think, for students from other countries outside of America?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 27:34
Absolutely. I think, again, 9/11, was this global event, it impacted lives around the world. So, in that sense, it’s not really US-centric. Yes, there are units on US domestic policy that are US-centric but these policies often laid the groundwork to other policies in other countries. So, the Countering Violent Extremism programs is a really good example of that. They target Muslims, even though that’s not how they’re sold to the public. And we’ve seen these programs in Australia, in the UK, even in in Saudi Arabia apparently, I learned more recently. We have modules that explicitly focus outside of the US. So, there’s one on Denmark and just Islamophobia in Denmark that starts with the story of the Danish cartoon controversy. We have a lesson on Laicite in France, and just about how those policies have targeted, this quest for secularism, have impacted religious minorities, specifically Muslim religious minorities. Obviously, there are the lessons on Iraq, Afghanistan. There’s the Arab uprisings, like I said, connects to Occupy Wall Street. I think there’s just so much out there, and there are more areas that we will hopefully be adding in so that people can just see the reach of the Global War on Terror. I mean, you don’t think about the Philippines, when you think about the War on Terror and yet there is a US presence there and training is happening of these elite forces that are supposed to kind of clamp down on Muslim extremism. So, there’s just so much out there. And I think it’s important for people to make those connections.
Will Brehm 29:09
And is the plan to begin translating some of these lessons in different languages?
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 29:13
It’s a matter of funding. I mean, somebody already asked me that. And somebody actually asked me, will it be available in Spanish? And I was like, “Oh, my God, I wish!” So, I think, it depends on how it gets taken up. And if we’re able to show that there’s a real value in this curriculum, we would absolutely love to see it being translated. I think that would be really, really important. And then maybe even developing lessons that are a little bit more specific to other countries without that sort of slightly US focus that’s there. I mean our goal is 50 lessons but that doesn’t mean we need to stop at 50 lessons. That’s just what I have funding for.
Will Brehm 29:48
It’s such a great project. And so Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. Please come back on, tell us how it’s going and it’s just great for two podcasters to get together every once in a while.
Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher 30:00
Oh, Will. Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun and I really appreciate you taking the time to even talk about this curriculum. Thanks.
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