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September 9, 2011 > 911, a date of infamy

911, a date of infamy

Some dates are forever burned into the annals of history and the minds of those who bore witness to the event and actions that shaped subsequent developments. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the Congress of the United States of America following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it a "Day of Infamy," launching entry of this country into World War II. Other events have triggered widespread conflicts and national emotions; each case spawning a myriad of results. The following story from a local middle school reveals a less visible (and surprisingly positive) outcome of a day that citizens throughout the world will remember as one of the most negative, reprehensible and dastardly acts against innocent lives.

A Different 911 Story
Submitted by Foad Amoon

An hour before Alsion Montessori Middle/ High in Mission San Jose opened its doors for the first time, an American Airlines jetliner slammed into the North tower of Manhattan's World Trade Center in Manhattan. The world remembers this black day because of the unprovoked nature of the attack and of the loss of more than 3,000 lives. It stunned all of us into the realization that the world's most powerful nation had fallen prey to a handful of terrorists. Within the local Alsion school community, however, the 911 attack will always have a bittersweet aspect. It provided us with a "teachable moment" that was so successful it changed Alsion's approach to teaching our students to this day.

The teacher scrapped the lesson plan prepared for that day. What else could he do? Everyone sat transfixed to the television screen, unable to focus on anything else. The next day, he pulled out his notes about Socratic discussions from a Montessori course on teaching adolescents. Named for Socrates, the fourth-century Greek philosopher who employed this technique, this pedagogical method has the teacher take a position on an issue. Rather than tell students what to think, students are asked to reflect and give their own answer.

The teacher guides student responses to uncover nuances and controversies imbedded in the issue. After 2,400 years, the Socratic Method has been proven to be effective way to encourage critical thinking.

The day after 911, the question was asked, "Once we discover the people responsible for this attack on us, what we should do with them?" The entire student body consisted of only a dozen seventh graders, mostly 12-year-olds, but their answers were both wide ranging and wildly imaginative.

"We should round them up, give them a fair trial and then kill them." This was the consensus view. At one extreme, a student proposed "We should hang them up by their ears and drill holes in their heads while they were still alive." Another, more reflective student, replied, "No, we should require them to be servants in the homes of those they killed. When the terrorists finally realize what they had done, their guilt will be a greater punishment than death."

Although discussion of what would be a just punishment for the 911 terrorists yielded insights that most people would not expect from a dozen 12-year-olds, that was not what impressed their teacher. From a workshop the preceding summer, he recalled an important lesson: "Process is more important than the product." He realized the Socratic Method was a key to student engagement. Without exception, every student contributed with enthusiasm. No one held back. The process arising from the 911 discussion ten years ago was, indeed, more important than what the students actually said. The Socratic Method was, the teacher concluded, "A silver bullet!"

In early 2001, that teacher, was also Alsion Montessori's founder, Michael Leahy, a MBA graduate and businessman, who had filled-in temporarily until an acceptable professional teacher was hired. As founder, Leahy also held the position of Board President with the authority to institutionalize the Socratic Method at the school. He hired Michelle Doyle, who had formal training in the Socratic Method and earned a reputation for success. A conference table with space for twelve students displaced traditional student desks.

It is difficult to imagine any discussion topic to be more stimulating to students than "What would be a just punishment for the terrorists who attacked America?" especially on the day after it happened. However, to this day, the events of 911 have inspired many other topics which Michelle Doyle writes at the top of the sign-up sheets she posts on the school bulletin board every Monday for her "Socratic elective." Alsion now has another Socratic conference table, for seventh graders only, with Carter McCoy presiding.

If 911 did not happen on the first day Alsion Montessori Middle/High opened its doors, would Fridays mean the same as they do today? No one can say. But when you ask students who graduated from Alsion, what made their experience there the most valuable or the most fun, the Socratic elective at Alsion always ranks near the top.

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