Teaching a 9/11 Documentary in the Classroom | Teachers College Columbia University

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Teaching a 9/11 Documentary in the Classroom

In 2007, an award-winning documentary film, "Beyond Belief," portrayed the efforts of two women whose husbands were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to promote tolerance and raise money for war widows and orphans in Afghanistan. Now a TC team is creating a study guide to accompany the film.
When the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is observed this fall, it’s a sure bet that television stations will play and replay the all-too-familiar footage of planes hitting the World Trade Center towers and smoke billowing above the panicked crowd.

To Susan Retik, whose husband, David, died that day on board American Airlines Flight 11, revisiting those events is precisely what’s not needed – and not because of what she, personally, has suffered.

“As indelible as those images are, I’ll also never forget the countless acts of courage and compassion that followed 9/11,” Retik says. “For a while, it brought out the best in all of us. That’s what we need to remember and build upon in the world community. Tolerance appreciation for our shared humanity can be the true legacy of 9/11 – but only if we choose to make it so.”

In 2007, an award-winning documentary film, “Beyond Belief,” directed by Beth Murphy, portrayed the efforts of Retik and Patti Quigley, whose husband, Patrick, was killed aboard United Flight 175, to promote such tolerance through their efforts to raise money for the many thousands of war widows and orphans in Afghanistan.  Now, funded by the Beyond the 11th Foundation created by Retik and Quigley, a team of Teachers College faculty and staff led by Margaret Crocco, Professor of Social Studies and Education, is creating a study guide to accompany the film. 

“The feedback we’ve gotten from educators is that the film helps students open their eyes to the world and bring books like Three Cups of Tea and The Kite Runner to life,” says Murphy, whose production company is called Principle Pictures. (Its motto is “Stories that make a difference.”) “So when we thought about the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we felt we needed to supply additional educational materials. Working with Margaret and Teachers College was our number one choice.”

Crocco, who led development of “Teaching the Levees,” a curriculum based on the Spike Lee documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, says the 16-20 page “Beyond Belief” study guide will be structured in two parts, one geared towards grades 8-12 and the other toward college students and adults. 

“This is not an effort to revisit the tragedy, but instead, a way of asking, ‘What can we do so that such horrors don’t happen again?’” says Crocco. “The film itself is very emotionally difficult to watch, but it gives you a sense of two women who did something remarkable out of terrible events. And that’s where we want to leave people, whether they’re 17, 45 or any other age.”

The structure of “Beyond Belief” itself embodies the idea of moving away from an obsession with the terrorist attacks themselves and focusing instead on the broader issues that surrounded them. The film begins with a long pan through an empty living room as news footage of the attacks plays on a TV screen. Very quickly, however, the action shifts to Retik and Quigley biking from Ground Zero to Boston to raise money for the Beyond the 11th Foundation. The film ultimately follows them to Kabul and smaller villages in Afghanistan, where they meet with widowed women who are feeding their children – typically five or more to a family – on the equivalent of $16 per day.

“Before I met you, I wanted to help you,” Retik tells a group of women. “Now that I’ve met you, I really want to help you.”

The study guide echoes that ideal, featuring suggested “taking action” exercises for all age groups.

“We want students to internalize the message of this film,” says Murphy. “The message is – yes, you can have a positive impact in our world. And there’s no better time to start than right now.”

Crocco says one of the challenges in developing the study guide, particularly with an eye toward younger students, will be to deal with the lack of knowledge about Afghanistan and Islam. “So many learners will be bringing a set of stereotypes to these issues. Many would not be able to find Afghanistan on a map and, like most Americans, have very fixed ideas about what Islam is and who Muslims are.”

Crocco expects the study guide to be completed by the end of April. Two veteran educators – Maureen Grolnick, who project managed “Teaching The Levees” and who is the co-author of the book Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11; and Keri Plassmann, a middle and high school teacher and teaching coach – as writers. A three-member advisory board, consisting of TC faculty members Louis Cristillo and Monisha Bajaj, and Iftikhar Ahmad of Long Island University (CW Post), will review the final draft.

To order a DVD of “Beyond Belief,” visit http://www.principlepictures.com/beyondbelief/educationaldvd.htm

Published Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2011


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