As a fifth-grade teacher, it was easy to justify the exclusion of the 9/11 attacks from my classroom as inappropriate for little ones or not part of the curriculum. But I had another justification that made it even easier: I didn’t want to confront my personal history around the topic. My first adult job was with an investment bank in New York City. Every morning, I would walk through the lobby of 1 World Trade Center on my way to work next door in 3 World Financial Center. I was at ground zero that day. It was devastating and radically altered my life. I spent years avoiding the topic in conversation. Silence was my default.
I had promised myself on the first anniversary of the attacks that I would do something “different” on September 11 every year as a way to honor those who died. What different meant I never defined, but I knew it when I was doing it. I fulfilled my promise in 2014 by teaching in a new school, but for 2015, I wasn’t sure what that difference was going to be.
In early September last year, I had started my students on a narrative writing project. On the eve of September 11, I was at home thinking about what I could do to make the next day’s writing lesson more relevant and engaging. My personal story about my 9/11 experience—something I had written years ago—popped into my head. I immediately discounted sharing that story as too personal and too mature for such a young audience. The next morning, though, the thought about my story wouldn’t go away. Before class started, I reread my story and reluctantly admitted to myself that it would be a useful tool to teach about descriptive details and provide a powerful real-world connection.
Class started, and we went about our usual routine. I pushed the writing lesson toward the end of class to allow myself more time to prepare mentally. Finally, I gathered my students on the carpet. I explained that I was going to share something that I had never shared before and that I would appreciate their respect and attention. I broke my silence and began to read. Everyone was still, even the usual fidgeters. I kept reading, at times a bit too fast because of my nerves, but the students kept listening.
When I was done, almost every hand shot up. Students mostly wanted to know if it was true and what was it like. I answered some of their questions, but more important, I asked them what they had noticed. We had a fascinating, in-depth conversation about the details I included, the ones I chose not to include, how I described certain events and my feelings, and how I paced the entire narrative. We basically analyzed the details of the writing process. Before I knew it, students couldn’t wait to try out some of these techniques in their own stories.
The next couple days were a whirlwind of exploration, dialogue and thinking on my feet. I had inadvertently unleashed an intense wave of curiosity that my students were holding about this historical event. The silence that this topic evokes in many adults had left an empty chasm for my students to fill with misinformation and an enormous number of questions. My goal was to create space for a student-directed dialogue as time allowed while also completing our work. The process wasn’t easy or linear and I stumbled many times, but I could tell it was a worthwhile pursuit based on the engagement of the class.
My students taught me during this process that it was possible to explore such an emotional and difficult topic as the 9/11 attacks with young people and that my silence all of these years wasn’t helping anyone, least of all myself. While I felt exhausted at times, this experience of sharing part of my history in the context of a larger, more important narrative was more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.
It became obvious to me that young people not only want a challenge but also that they are starving for one. My students enthusiastically grappled with tough essential questions that didn’t have easy answers, and they did so respectfully and inquisitively.
Overall, I’m thankful that I did something different by breaking the silence.
Suggestions for Incorporating Challenging Topics
- Do have a clear plan for how you will incorporate the topic into your class. Don’t do what I did and add it on the fly.
- Do incorporate the topic into what students are already learning and doing in class. Integration creates a more meaningful learning experience.
- Do find a personal connection that students can make. For my students, the starting point was my story, but it can be anything such as a short video, piece of literature, family or community member.
- Do make room for dialogue. Create a framework for how dialogue will take place, but then let students engage in it with as little interference on your part as possible. And silence is OK. For many, silence is a way to process.
- Do be as open and authentic with your students as possible. It’s OK to make mistakes, struggle with the topic and not have all the answers.
Phillips is the manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.