Following a Tragic Event:

A Necessary Challenge for Civic Educators


Laurel R. Singleton

In Patriotic Time, Dissent Is Muted,” blares a headline from The New York Times (September 28, 2001). White House spokesman Ari Fleischer chides comedian Bill Maher by saying that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do . . . this is not a time for remarks like that.” An editorial in the Denver Post (September 22, 2001) exhorts Americans “to stay focused and stay unified for the tremendous task that lies ahead.” The drive for unity—encouraged by politicians and the media—has, at least temporarily, made the mere act of discussing U.S. responses to the terrorist attack of September 11 a controversial issue. My position on this question is unequivocal and forms the basis for this article: There is no more important time for engaging in policy deliberations on controversial issues than in the wake of such an event.

Certainly, as we work through the grief and horror created by terrible events, people seek unity and the support of a caring community. Dispelling feelings of isolation and regaining some sense of control by banding together—whether to aid victims or to proclaim our national pride—helps many people get through the tragedy. Teachers appropriately respond by conducting classroom activities that allow students to air their feelings and fears and plan actions so that students believe they are making a difference.

We cannot stop there, however. Democracy requires the expression of differing opinions and the examination of alternative perspectives in the belief that the truth is most likely to emerge following candid discussions of all dimensions of an issue. The fact that Americans routinely perceive consensus around issues when opinions are actually divided1 only exacerbates the likelihood that some people will view questioning and discussion as disloyal, somehow wrong. For teachers, the choice to engage students in a critical analysis of issues arising from tragic events can therefore be a difficult one. Yet if there is truly a deeper unity among Americans, it is in our shared commitment to core democratic values, which demand our willingness to engage in thoughtful examination and conversation about the most important issues we face.

The National Standards for Civics and Government identify the following as values “fundamental to American civic life”: individual rights (life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness), the common good, self-government, justice, equality, diversity, truth, patriotism, and openness and free inquiry.2 We, as citizens, are obligated to consider how proposed responses to a tragic event promote these fundamental values. And our commitment to openness and free inquiry—to the talk that is, in Benjamin Barber’s words, “at the heart of strong democracy”3—is never more important than when reason is most likely to be clouded by powerful emotions.

As civic educators, we have a responsibility to help students think critically about such events as the September 11 terrorist attacks, particularly when much of the media to which students are exposed fail to provide multiple perspectives on the issues. We must help students realize that, while we are united in grief, we can be just as united when we passionately disagree about how to respond to a tragic event because we share a common commitment to inquiry and self-government.

How can we approach the issues emerging from tragic events as controversial public issues to be deliberated? In this article, I provide a few suggestions for thinking through the process, derived in part from the groundbreaking work done by Donald Oliver, James Shaver, and Fred Newmann in developing the Public Issues Model (see the next page), the Social Science Education Consortium’s (SSEC) work with that model, and the work of Diana Hess, one of the nation’s leading experts on public issues discussions.

Select the Issue Carefully

Defining what we mean by a controversial public issue is a necessary first step in issue selection. Although definitions are numerous, in the Public Issues Model we define a public issue as a question involving a choice or decision over which there is disagreement. Examples of public issues arising from the events of September 11 are the following:

• Should U.S. policymakers conceive of our response to the September 11 attack as seeking justice or waging war?

• Should the U.S. government treat nations who “harbor” terrorists in the same manner as it treats terrorists themselves?

• How, if at all, should the United States change its foreign policy in order to prevent terrorism?

• Should restrictions on wiretapping be eased?

Obviously, these questions are working on different levels of specificity. Broader questions can be rich, prompting discussion of constitutional issues, value conflicts, and historical analogies. They may also require, however, more background reading and preparation and, with less-skilled discussants, may produce discussions that lack focus. Yet questions that are too narrow can produce lifeless discussions mired in details of the particular incident or case and may have less power to clarify and expand students’ thinking. Some teachers may prefer starting with a broadly stated issue and use a deductive approach to arrive at the particular case; others may prefer an inductive approach to move from the specific current event to the broader, more enduring issue. Teachers may need practice to determine what works best in certain situations or with certain classes.

Although numerous criteria can be brought to bear on issue selection,4 I would like to suggest applying two primary criteria in the selection of an issue for discussion in the aftermath of a traumatic event: (1) Does the issue reflect an important and enduring question, one that has reappeared in different forms over time? (2) What curriculum goals does the issue help teachers meet? For example, if a teacher needs to teach students about the Bill of Rights, the following might be an excellent issue to discuss in the wake of September 11:

• To what extent, if any, should U.S. citizens’ rights be abridged in order to improve security?

This issue could encompass the wiretapping question posed earlier, as well as a number of other specific issues discussed since September 11 (e.g., Should airline pilots be armed in order to prevent hijacking? Should a moratorium be placed on student visas?). In addition, numerous historical analogies influence the broader issue (e.g., changes in school security practices following the Columbine murders, wartime restrictions on civil liberties). In the process of preparing for and participating in the discussion, students will also learn a great deal about the Bill of Rights. If a teacher is in the midst of a unit on foreign policy, however, he or she obviously serves the curriculum better by choosing an issue that focuses on a foreign policy aspect of the U.S. response.

Many teachers prefer to involve students in selecting the issue. Diana Hess points out, however, that students are not monolithic in their preferences; students may end up selecting an issue that is not closely linked to their teacher’s curricular goals and in which only some students are interested. Thus, giving students a controlled choice may be the best option.5 Controlled choice means that students can select the issue from several that a teacher has crafted to meet instructional purposes. If a teacher’s content focus is the Bill of Rights, she or he might offer students a choice among the following:

• To what extent, if any, should U.S. citizens’ rights be abridged in order to improve security?

• In the interests of unity, should employers punish their employees for expressing dissident views?

• Is profiling an appropriate tool for law enforcement and military officials to use? If so, when and under what circumstances?

Depending on the class and the materials available, teachers may have students vote and then discuss the “winning” issue or have small group discussions of multiple issues occurring simultaneously, with students participating in the issue group that they prefer.


Choose a Model

A good discussion of issues arising from a tragic event is not the spontaneous conversation that you engage in once and then never return to. It requires careful planning, execution, and follow-up. If a teacher is not already discussing controversial public issues in the classroom, some investigation of models is necessary. Many models for dealing with controversial issues exist; NCSS’s Handbook on Teaching Social Issues is a good place to begin learning about them.6 Diana Hess suggests that teachers “not skip from model to model, but select one or two carefully and use them with some regularity.”7 The box on page 414 provides a brief overview of the Public Issues Model and how it might apply to issues raised by the September 11 attacks. Teachers are best advised to take time to learn about this and other models and choose one that fits their teaching style and goals.


Find Strong Materials and Prepare Students Well

After a tragic event, looking at the mainstream U.S. media may convince teachers that multiple perspectives do not exist. Here is one case in which the Internet is truly a teacher’s best friend, because it offers ready access to the international press, where varying perspectives will be easier to find. As just one example, in the days following the September 11 attack, the website of the British paper, The Guardian (, provided a wide range of well-articulated views on possible responses to the attack.

More than ever in times of turmoil, students will need strong examples of arguments that support various claims. Unfortunately, students (and many other citizens) do not have the background to sort out well-supported positions from well-articulated rantings. To prepare students to discuss the identified issue, teachers need to make available solid background information, as well as well-reasoned discussions of various positions on the issue. This information might be presented in a range of ways—through mini-lectures, whole-class reading and comprehension activities, jigsaw strategies—the possibilities are nearly limitless and can be supplemented by additional student research.8 The key point is that students must have good information reflecting multiple perspectives on the issue. Several articles in this and the October 2001 issue of Social Education identify material related to the September 11 attacks and their aftermath.

Of course, with the Internet providing ready access to materials on current events, teachers must take particular care to ensure that students do not uncritically accept unreliable information. In the short-term, teachers can circumvent this problem by choosing all the materials themselves. In the long run, however, we want students to develop the skills to analyze sources themselves. Numerous instruments for evaluating websites are available online, and teachers can select or adapt these for their students.9 Below are a few key questions that teachers might post in the classroom for students to refer to as they participate in research and discussions.

• Who is the author? Does the author provide evidence of his or her expertise?

• What was the author’s purpose—to persuade? To educate or inform? To sell a product? To entertain?

• Is the content in-depth or superficial? Is it current?

• Is the content balanced? Are opinions clearly labeled as opinions?

• Can the information be verified by another source?

Other key steps include helping students understand the purpose of the discussion—to reach a deeper understanding of the issue and to clarify their own positions—and engaging them in developing norms for discussion. These norms might include the following:

• Hear all sides equally.

• Listen well enough to respond to and build on one another’s ideas.

• Back up opinions with clear reasons.

• Speak one at a time.

• Don’t monopolize the discussion.

• Talk directly to one another, not through the teacher or facilitator.

• Invite others into the discussion.


Don’t Stop When the Bell Rings

A productive discussion of issues arising from a tragic event isn’t a “quick fix,” something done the day after the event, followed by a fast return to the regular curriculum. Students need time to identify and locate the information to discuss an issue with insight; they also need time to discuss, reflect, and discuss some more.

Students also need opportunities to give their work meaning beyond mere success in school.10 Asking students to write letters to policymakers or newspapers, to organize an out-of-class discussion on the issue and report back to classmates on the results, or to prepare informational materials on the issue for other students can lend an authenticity to the schoolwork that leads to lasting learning.


Assessing Student Learning

In preparing young people for active citizenship, many of our most important goals are also the most difficult to assess. In a public issues discussion, we certainly want students to learn content, which most teachers have considerable skill in assessing. We also want students to improve their discussion skills, an assessment challenge that some thoughtful educators have been working on to develop rubrics and other tools for evaluation.11

Perhaps most difficult is determining from a large-group discussion whether each individual student has understood more fully the complexity of an issue and the varying perspectives on the issue, and has developed and supported a position that reflects that complexity. Strategies can increase “air time” for individual students (e.g., videotaped small-group discussions, fish-bowl formats) so that the teacher gets a better sense of each student’s thinking.

Still, a fair assessment of each student’s growth in analytic skills may require an additional individual task, such as a writing exercise. Any of the tasks intended to give students’ work meaning beyond the classroom can serve the dual purpose of assessment. In fact, that dual purpose illustrates Walter Parker’s point, that “issue-oriented curriculum development and assessment are, at the higher levels of quality, the same thing.”12 Both are challenging but essential if we believe that democracy requires citizens to engage with their fellow citizens in deliberation about public issues.



1. John Hibbing, “Politics Is Not a Dirty Word: Helping Students to Appreciate Democracy,” in Sea Changes in Social Science Education: Woods Hole 2000, ed. Charles S. White (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 2001), 23.

2. National Standards for Civics and Government (Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1994): 107-108. For other formulations of values fundamental to American democracy, see, for example, Alan L. Lockwood and David E. Harris, Reasoning with Democratic Values: Instructor’s Manual (New York: Teachers College Press, 1985); Donald W. Oliver and James P. Shaver, Teaching Public Issues in the High School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).

3. Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

4. For possible criteria, see, for example, Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, NCSS Bulletin 93 (Washington, D.C.: 1996); or Barbara Miller and Laurel R. Singleton, Preparing Citizens: Linking Authentic Assessment and Instruction in Civic/Law-Related Education (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1997), Chapter 5.

5. Diana Hess, personal conversation (September 28, 2001).

6. Evans and Saxe.

7. Diana Hess, Teaching Students to Discuss Controversial Public Issues: Recommendations for Teachers, ERIC Digest (Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, forthcoming).

8. Structured Academic Controversy is a model for discussion that incorporates specific strategies for the sharing of background reading information by students. To learn more about this model, see David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, “Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy,” Educational Leadership 45, no. 8 (1998): 58-64.

9. See, for example, Kathy Schrock’s website ( for her own evaluation tools, as well as links to many other site evaluation checklists and rubrics.

10. Among the criteria for judging authenticity of school work identified by Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage is the following: “Students aim their work toward production of discourse, products, and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school.” For more information, see Fred M. Newmann and Gary G. Wehlage, “Five Standards of Authentic Instruction,” Educational Leadership 50, no. 7 (1993): 8-12.

11. For an excellent discussion of evaluating discussions, see David Harris’s article, “Assessing Discussion of Public Issues: A Scoring Guide,” in Evans and Saxe, 1996: 289-297; also see Miller and Singleton, 1997.

12. Walter C. Parker, “Assessing Student Learning of an Issue-Oriented Curriculum,” in Evans and Saxe.


Laurel R. Singleton is the associate director of the Social Science Education Consortium, Boulder, CO.


The Public Issues Model


The Public Issues Model, developed by the Harvard Social Studies Project during the 1960s and 1970s, rests on the idea that citizens in a democracy differ in their views and priorities and that democratic values often conflict in specific cases. The resolution of complex public issues within democratic society requires citizens to negotiate their differences through careful analysis and public discussion. Helping students develop their abilities to take part in this conversation is thus a crucial aspect of social studies education.


Within the Public Issues Model, the purpose of discussion is not to resolve disagreements—although that can be an outcome—but to help students learn to state their ideas with more precision, to develop stronger rationales for their positions, and to understand precisely how their ideas differ from those of others.

A key element is the recognition that disagreements can be of several types and that different strategies may be needed to deal with them. In general, the kinds of questions that arise in discussing public issues fall into three categories, as illustrated in the chart below.


Should the United States declare a “war on terrorism”?

Ethical issue:

• Should the United States include actions in its war on terrorism that have potential to harm innocent civilians?


Definitional issue:

• What do we mean by war? What do we mean by terrorism? How are they different?


Fact/explanation issue:

• Why have terrorists targeted the United States? Could efforts to address these reasons effectively stop terrorism? Can a war on terrorism be won?

Questions involving facts and explanations. These questions focus on disagreements about the descriptions or explanations of events. In discussion, factual claims can be supported by appealing to common knowledge, citing personal observations, or referring to authoritative sources. In the face of disagreements about facts/explanations, discussion can be moved forward by stipulation (participants agree to proceed on the basis of one set of factual claims, even though not all agree with those claims) or by agreeing to support their positions using other arguments. I should point out, however, that fact/explanation issues over which there is disagreement offer an opportunity for student inquiry. As the examples in the chart indicate, a discussion of a controversial public issue can identify many questions to spark student research. 

Questions of definition. These questions revolve around the meaning of important words or phrases. Resolving these questions can generally be achieved through the use of an authoritative source or agreement to use a word in a specific way. Learning to identify that two discussants have totally different conceptions of what we mean by terrorism, for example, is an important skill. Disagreements over definitions are often numerous, profound, and unrecognized, contributing to discussions that go nowhere.

Ethical or value questions. These questions deal with judgments about what should or ought to be done—judgments about right and wrong. Often, disagreements of this kind have to do with which of two conflicting goods (e.g., liberty and security) should take priority. In resolving such disagreements, the public issues model would encourage students to look for compromises that violate to the least extent possible each contending value. One powerful technique for clarifying thinking on ethical issues is the analogy. Examining how an issue might be resolved in one or more related cases forces discussants to make distinctions and qualifications that strengthen and clarify their position. In the wake of the September 11 attack, many commentators drew on the analogy of Pearl Harbor. Although it is not a particularly close analogy, its frequent use makes a fruitful case for analysis. Cases that were more clearly international terrorist attacks (e.g., the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 or the embassy bombings) or that involved domestic terrorism (e.g., “rogue” fundamentalist Christians’ lethal attacks on abortion clinics or the Oklahoma City bombing) would help students make other useful distinctions.


The sample discussion on page 415 may help illustrate these points; in it, students use analogies, cite authoritative sources to support their ethical positions and to resolve a definitional issue, predict consequences of various positions, evaluate a source, and stipulate to a set of facts.


Sample Class Discussion


Teacher: Okay, everyone has read and prepared some notes for this discussion on the question, “Should the United States declare a ‘war on terrorism’?” Would someone who has a definite position on this question like to begin?

Erin: I believe that the United States should wage a war on terrorism. I agree with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that while the costs of taking action are high, the costs of inaction are higher.

Kevin: I agree with Erin. When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we responded immediately by declaring war on Japan. In that case we were successful, so I think that’s evidence that you have to retaliate when attacked.

Marcos: But Pearl Harbor was a lot different. That was clearly an act of war—one country’s military attacking military targets in another country. It was only similar in that it was a surprise attack. This attack was an act of terrorism and we didn’t know immediately who did it.

Emma: I don’t think it makes a difference whether it was an act of terrorism or war. They’re both attacks.

Rich: Well, I think it makes a difference because wars are between governments. Terrorism isn’t with a government.

Michael: Terrorism can be connected to a government. I think the difference is in who the victims are.

Keisha: I found a good definition on the History News Network. It was in an article by David Greenberg, who is a historian at Columbia University. He says that terrorism is “committed by stateless organizations against established powers” and “specifically targets random, unsuspecting victims to publicize a grievance and sow panic among the strong.” Could we agree on that definition?


[Students nod and indicate their agreement.]


Teacher: Okay, now that we’ve agreed on a definition of terrorism, how does that affect our views on the larger issue?


Marcos: Well, I think that saying we have a war on terrorism is like saying we have a war on drugs, which we know wasn’t very effective. If you’re not fighting another country, it’s hard to figure out who and where you’re fighting. Even with the report issued by the British government, which gives the evidence that Osama bin Laden’s network was involved, we don’t know the extent of the network or where all of them are or how to find them. So I just don’t know if a war on terrorism can be effective.

Keisha: I’ve heard that terrorism has a one hundred percent failure rate. Terrorists always fail at their purpose and end up strengthening what they want to harm. So why launch a war that could end up hurting innocent people in other countries if the terrorism is destined to fail anyway?

Felicia: Wait a minute; you heard that on West Wing. [To the teacher.] She can’t use that as a source, can she?

Teacher: Why not break it down like you would any other source?

Jorge: Well, the authors of that show have a lot of resources and consultants so they should be able to get all the information they need.

Erin: Yes, but the show has a bias. My mom and all her friends are liberals and they love that show. It’s definitely a liberal show.

Felicia: But the show on terrorism really tried to present lots of different views.

Kevin: But what Keisha was saying isn’t an opinion—it was presented as a fact. And we know that commercial television’s goal is to get viewers so they can sell products to them. That means they take dramatic liberties with facts. So we need to see if we have any other sources that support that statement—that terrorism has a one hundred percent failure rate.


[Students shuffle through their packet of readings, but no one finds anything.]



Teacher: So if we don’t have any other sources on this set of facts, what should we do?

Tiffany: Well, we could just agree to proceed as if the statement were true to see where that would take us. Should we do that?


[Students indicate general agreement.]


Tiffany: I want to return to Erin’s first point—that the costs of inaction are too high. If terrorism is ineffective, then what are the costs of inaction?

Erin: Well, I agreed to stipulate to that fact, but I guess I’m not sure what ineffective means. The terrorist attacks were effective in killing more than 5,000 people and messing up the economy and scaring us. I want to make sure more people aren’t killed and the economy has a chance to get “fixed” and we feel safe again.


The discussion could proceed in any direction at almost any point. When students have skills in analyzing and discussing issues, however, they are able to keep the conversation moving; instead of becoming bogged down in questions and problems, students continue to delve into the complexities of the issue.

In the classroom, the point of discussing public issues is to use the power of both critical and caring relationships to educate individuals and the group. In applying the Public Issues Model, the teacher becomes a facilitator, helping students have productive conversations with one another. To prepare students for such discussions, teachers must focus considerable attention on creating a climate supportive of authentic discourse and developing students’ discussion skills.



Because this article does not permit the detailed discussion of these two topics, I would refer readers to the NCSS Handbook on Teaching Social Issues. In addition, I invite readers to examine two “generic” discussion skills lessons, with many handouts, available on the SSEC’s website. Go to and click on “Developing Discussion Skills” and “Developing Discussion Skills, Part 2.”