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Teaching About Terrorism: A Case Study for Teaching Current Events in the Classroom

by Jeffrey Mark Pearlman

Meeting State Standards
A Three Week Unit
Teaching About Current Events


With the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, I realized one of the ways to educate my middle school students regarding these unfolding events was through a current events project. The topic of the project was not centered on the events of September 11, but rather on the aftermath of this sad day. Although the topic below is on the aftermath, the project outline and approach can be used for any news topic.

Sensitivity was paramount. I made a conscious effort to be objective at a time when emotion outran reason. While teaching about September 11 and its aftermath, the inevitable questions about Islam, Muslims, and Arabs had to become part of the discussions. In addition to giving my students a broad concept of the historical development of Islam and its basic religious beliefs, I stressed the diversity among the Muslim populations throughout the world. "Teaching About Religion in World History" is an excellent article in the eTeach World History archives which explains how to teach about religion and gives links to sites discussing the Islamic faith.

I reminded students about the negative aspects of stereotyping people, including discussing how movies and television portray negative stereotypes, especially of Arabs. We discussed the meaning of prejudice, or prejudging of people, based on ethnicity, skin color, clothing, language, and other factors. In learning about the aftermath of September 11, I encouraged students to be alert to stereotyping in political cartoons, editorials, and commentaries. My students were excited about the unit and were more than willing to watch the news, read newspapers, and submit material from the Internet.


Often times, teachers are wary of varying from the curriculum, fearful that they will not finish the prescribed material. Yet, there are many methods to meeting state standards. Massachusetts requires all students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams before graduation. This lesson on the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy includes geography, history, vocabulary, and writing and critical thinking skills, which fit in with general state requirements. It teaches chronological cause and effect, historical understanding, and interdisciplinary learning.


The unit described below lasted approximately three weeks. Here is the breakdown

The first week was devoted to giving students the background that they needed in order to be informed citizens who could determine their own outlook on the issues. It also gave them a common base of information that would allow them to have discussions and to work together on projects. I divided "background" into five daily lessons.

Day 1: Maps were of great importance in teaching this unit. It was important that the students had a visual concept of where the events were taking place. Assuming that they already had a basic visual picture of the United States (regarding where New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania are located), I chose to teach them about Central Asia and Afghanistan. I gave the students an outline map of Central Asia, to fill in the names of countries, bodies of water, capital cities, mountain ranges. They could then color the map. For most students, this took less than one period. However, a few completed their maps as homework. Students kept their maps in their project folders. As we progressed throughout this unit, I encouraged students to add new localities to their maps, as these places came up in the news.

Map of Afghanistan
Map of Central and Southwest Asia (Political)
Map of Asia

Students needed to be able to answer geography questions such as these.

  1. Where is Afghanistan located?
  2. Which countries border Afghanistan on the north, south, east, and west?
  3. What are the major cities in Afghanistan and its neighboring countries?
  4. What is the terrain and climate of Afghanistan? (name major mountain regions and lakes or rivers)
  5. Near what major bodies of water is Afghanistan located?
  6. What is Afghanistan's access to these bodies of water?

Day 2: Vocabulary is an important part of communication and understanding. Teaching basic vocabulary relating to the terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism enabled students to have discussions where they each understood what others were talking about. Care was taken to only define these vocabulary terms or individuals, without going off on tangents or editorializing. The approach I used to present vocabulary was to list each word on the chalkboard (one at a time), have the students write each one down, and then go over the meaning of each one separately. While discussing each term, the students wrote their meanings. The students kept the vocabulary list in their project folder, along with their map of Central Asia. I felt this approach was best so that all students would use the same meaning for each word. This helped to avoid confusion or even arguments. For extra credit, students had a choice of using the vocabulary words to make crossword puzzles and other word games.

Some of the basic vocabulary words I used were:

Eastern Alliance
United Nations
opposition forces
cell (political/terrorist)
Mullah Omar

Northern Alliance
civil war
Osama bin Laden

Day 3: Now the students had basic knowledge that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda masterminded and carried out the terrorist attacks on the United States, and that they were supported and aided by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. They were now prepared to learn more about the history of Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden.

There are many ways to approach these subjects. I printed out the above Prentice Hall links and gave them to the students at the end of Day 2 to read for homework. They were also told to keep these handouts in their project folders. On Day 3 we had a class discussion on Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. The homework assignment that evening was to write a summary of what they had learned in class on Day 3 and keep it in their project folder.

Examples of questions students needed to be able to answer were:

  1. Name some of the empires and countries that have invaded Afghanistan throughout history.
  2. What are some of the major ethnic groups (tribes) in Afghanistan and where do they live? (Note how some of the ethnic group names correspond with neighboring countries; what does "stan" mean at the end of a word?)
  3. What are some of the languages spoken in Afghanistan?
  4. When was the first monarchy established in Afghanistan and why?
  5. Describe the economy of Afghanistan.
  6. What are the two branches of Islam practiced in Afghanistan and what percentage of the population belongs to each one?
  7. What was the literacy rate in Afghanistan in 1990, and do you think it would be higher or lower in 2002 and why?
  8. Afghanistan is approximately the size of which state in the United States?
  9. When did the Taliban movement take control of the government of Afghanistan?
  10. Describe Osama bin Laden's family and educational background.
  11. Why do you think Osama bin Laden chose Afghanistan as the home base for his anti-western terrorist operations?
  12. Which countries do the members of al-Qaeda come from?
  13. When the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden no longer have a power-hold in Afghanistan, do you believe they will still pose a threat to the United States and other countries and why?

Day 4: This was the time to explain about sources used for current events, differentiating between fact and opinion, critical reading and comparative analysis. Daily newspapers, weekly magazines, daily television news reports or special reports (i.e., PBS or CNN), radio news, and the Internet may all be sources of information. (Some graphic organizers are given in the links at the end of this article. They are useful in helping students understand the unfolding events and news articles.)

The class was divided into three groups. Each group was assigned a different topic: (1) sources used for current events, (2) differentiating between fact and opinion, or (3) critical reading and comparative analysis. Each group had ten minutes to organize its thoughts on the topic. Then each group's spokesperson reported to the rest of the class, while everyone took notes, asked questions, and discussed each topic.

Toward the end of the period, I explained to the students that beginning Saturday (because Day 1 was on Monday), I expected them to read and listen to the news, each day, regarding the aftermath of the events of September 11. Beginning on Monday, they would be expected to participate in a daily discussion of the latest events regarding the aftermath. These events could be related to happenings in Afghanistan, the United States, or any other country, e.g., the discovery of al-Qaeda cells in Germany or Spain. (See outline below for more detail and suggestions for Day 4 and the total project.)

For Friday I scheduled an end-of-the-week quiz to help students bring it all together before embarking on their assignments. For Day 4's homework, they were instructed to review their project folders: maps, vocabulary lists, hand-outs on Afghanistan and bin Laden, and notes on sources and analysis of current events. I explained that the purpose of the quiz was to help them prepare for the following weeks' project.

Day 5: Quiz: I prepared a quiz of objective questions: matching, fill-in-the-blank, and multiple choice.

During the second and third weeks there were two types of assignments—individual and group.

Individual: Each day, all students came to class prepared to discuss the events of the previous day that related to the aftermath of September 11 (I allowed a maximum of 15 minutes each day for this activity). Students told the source of their information before speaking about the news. If their information came from a newspaper or magazine, they often cut out the article, map, cartoon, or photograph for our class bulletin board. If they had printed something from the Internet, they were able to donate that to the bulletin board, also.

Although all students were required to participate in class discussions, there were a variety of individual mini-projects, which I deemed extra credit, due to the heterogeneous nature of the class. Some students kept a journal of their personal reactions to the unfolding events, others compiled portfolios of pictures from the news. and others kept portfolios of articles which followed a specific theme or topic. These individual mini-projects could be about anything of interest to the student, and did not have to relate to their group project.

Group (heterogeneous): Students were divided into groups to study and report on a variety of topics related to the aftermath of September 11. In order to choose which topic a group would work on, I wrote the group project topics on slips of paper, and one member of each group pulled one out of the "hat." Each group had a facilitator and a note taker. Who did what within each group was determined by ability, talent, interest, and level of learning. Each member of the group was required to have a clear role in the project. For seven class periods after our brief discussion on the events of the previous day, the students gathered into their respective groups to work together on their group projects.

Some Group Project Topics:

  • The future of Afghanistan
  • The families of the victims of September 11
  • The coalition of nations and their continuing roles in the fight against terrorism
  • The role of the United Nations in the fight against terrorism
  • Domestic terrorism
  • The Office of Homeland Security
  • Security Needs vs. Civil Rights
  • The economic impact of the September 11 attacks
  • The resurgence of patriotism in the United States
  • The fundraising responses to the attacks and what happened to the money

I set aside the last three days for presentations, which took no more than 15 minutes each. After each presentation, I allowed time for questions and class discussion regarding each presentation. Examples of presentations were skits (written version handed in to teacher), displays, oral reports, songs or poems, (written versions handed in to teacher), and any combination of the above.


Students received grades based on the contents of their individual project folder, their quiz, their daily participation in current events discussions, their individual contribution to the group, their group grade, and any extra credit.


The series of activities and assignments I used to help students explore the aftermath of September 11 can have a more general application. The amount of time you devote to a current events topic, of course, will depend on the scope of the event and your other course requirements.

  1. Objectives
    1. Analyze geographic, social, economic, and historical background of a current event.
    2. Gather information on current events.
    3. Differentiate between facts and opinions.
    4. Read critically, comparing and contrasting news coverage from a variety of sources.

  2. Materials
    1. Folders: Students should have folders to keep their current events work in. This will be checked regularly by the teacher and handed in at the end of the third week.
    2. Printables: Teachers will provide students with map outlines, graphic organizers, historical background information, and any other information that is conducive to handouts, including the end-of-week quiz.

  3. Explore the Background of Events and Nature of Sources
    1. Geography of area where current event takes place, including map making. This could involve students in making maps of regions, nations, or even cities.
    2. Vocabulary will be determined by the subject matter, but should include terminology that will help students answer who, what, where, when, why, and how.
    3. Basic history for subject matter. This may cover centuries, decades, years, months, weeks, or even days. Having students make time lines may be helpful.
    4. Sources used for following current events, differentiating between fact and opinion, and critical reading and comparative analysis (see goals above).
    5. Quiz on the background information. Although students will receive a grade for the quiz, it should be viewed as an opportunity to solidify understanding, in preparation for students' individual and group projects.

  4. Assignments
    1. Individual
      1. Each day, all students will come to class prepared to discuss the current events of the previous day that relate to the subject matter (10-15 minutes each day).
      2. Students may have individual extra credit assignments based on their personal interests and abilities. These could be journals, portfolios, or creative arts projects. The student's chosen topic must relate to the current event topic, but does not have to be the same as their group project topic.
    2. Group (heterogeneous)
      1. Students will be divided into groups to study and report on how this current event affects social, economic, political, environmental, individual, or other aspects of the society or the world. Group project topics will most likely be determined by the event itself.
      2. Each group will have a facilitator and a note taker. Who does what within each group will be determined by ability, talent, interest, and level of learning. Each member of the group is required to have a clear role in the project. Each group will decide on what kind of presentation to make to the rest of the class; presentations should not take more than 15 minutes each.

  5. Evaluation Students will receive grades based on the quiz, their daily participation in current events discussions, individual contribution to the group, group grade, and extra credit.


Beyer, Lisa. "Coping With Chemicals." Time Magazine (February 15 1991).

Kakar, Hassan. Afghanistan. University of California Press. Berkley, California:1995.

Kaplan, Robert. Soldiers of Gods. Houghton-Mifflin Company. Boston, Massachusetts: 1990.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press. 2000.

Reeve, Simon. New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin-Laden, and the Future of Terrorism. The Northeastern University Press. Boston, Massachusetts: 1999.

Sarin, Oleg and Lev Dvortsky. The Afghan Syndrome, The Soviet Union's Viet Nam. Presideo Novato, California: 1993.


PHSchool Links:


Classroom Lessons from The Learning Network
This site has over 30 lesson plans relating to the events of September 11.

eTeach Archive Link: January 2001

"Teaching About Religion in World History"
This article discusses the sensitivity needed in teaching about religion.

News-gathering sites:

Information on Religions:

Graphic Organizers

The following graphic organizer handouts are useful.