Bringing 9/11 Into the Classroom—10 Years Later

My son was a 16-year-old high school junior on 9/11/2001. He could see the twin towers burning a few miles across the harbor from his school in Staten Island, N.Y. Across the country, other students watched the images on television, either as they were happening or later, as they looped endlessly on cable news.

My son was a 16-year-old high school junior on 9/11/2001. He could see the twin towers burning a few miles across the harbor from his school in Staten Island, N.Y.  Across the country, other students watched the images on television, either as they were happening or later, as they looped endlessly on cable news.

Today’s juniors were only 6 years old that day. Most of today’s elementary students weren’t even born. Just because they have lived in a world where “9/11” has always been shorthand for terror attacks, doesn’t mean that they know a lot about them. Nor does it mean that they understand the tremendous impact of those events. What they do know and believe, however, will most likely reflect what they have heard at home from parents and the media. 

And in the weeks ahead, they will surely be hearing and seeing more. There will be hours of special programming that will dwell on the events of the day, the images of terror and the emotional aftermath for survivors and first-responders. Educators and parents need to be ready.

Whether schools opt simply to memorialize the victims or decide to turn the anniversary into a teachable moment, one thing is clear: It’s going to be complicated. Educators bringing 9/11 into the classroom, particularly during the anniversary, need to be skilled and sensitive.

With that in mind, Teaching Tolerance offers some tips for educators as the anniversary approaches.

Children need to feel safe. For younger children especially, discussion of the day should include messages of reassurance that they are safe. Talk about the fact that the attack was shocking because it was unusual, and that nothing like it has happened since then in the United States. Emphasize stories of heroic and selfless actions rather than stories about victims. 

Involve families. Work with the PTA to get the word out to parents to monitor closely what’s on television, and remind them that scenes of violence can lead to anxiety in vulnerable children.

Understand how wide the 9/11 impact has been. Children across the country—not just those in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania—have been personally affected by the events and aftermath of 9/11. Consider whether your students include:

  • Children of military personnel, who are already anxious about their parents’ wellbeing;
  • Children who have lost a military parent in Iraq or Afghanistan;
  • Children whose parents are firefighters, police officers and other first-responders;
  • Children who are Muslims;
  • Children whose families have come from countries where terrorism is much more common; and
  • Children vulnerable to anxiety or depression.

Be aware of what children know and think about 9/11. Even though they don’t remember the day, students will have a narrative in their heads about what happened. It’s the rare family that will have ignored 9/11. The narrative however, might be long on opinion and short on details. If you are going to teach older students about the day or its consequences, be prepared to confront some strongly felt beliefs calmly.  

Anticipate questions. For many children, this anniversary will be the first time they’ve really talked about 9/11 in school. They will have questions, many of which cannot be easily answered. Plan ahead by meeting with other teachers to brainstorm likely questions and to decide what’s age-appropriate.

It’s not enough to remember. Many communities will memorialize those killed on 9/11 and the men and women who have been casualties in the resulting wars. Educators need to go beyond memorializing to create lessons that help students make sense of the world and be agents of positive change.

There is no dearth of ways to teach about 9/11. Here are some of the topics we think are worth exploring—we’ll have another blog tomorrow outlining lessons we recommend.  

  • Teach about Islam to dispel stereotypes and help children understand that not all Muslims are terrorists—and not all terrorists are Muslim.
  • Explore the nature of terrorism with high school students. There is no one definition of the word terrorism, even in the international community. Present students with two or three cases of terrorism (e.g. 9/11, the recent attacks in Norway and Irish Republican Army attacks during “the troubles”) and challenge them to find the commonalities.
  • Examine the ways in which stressful events put pressure on civil liberties and rights. During wartime, societies often reduce liberties—think of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, the imposition of martial law during the Civil War and passage of the Patriot Act in 2001—to gain security. Help students see that these changes need not be permanent, mainly because dissenters rise up to restrictions on liberty.
  • Develop historical thinking by exploring the consequences of 9/11. Help students see that the attacks themselves and the response to them have led to, among other things, two wars, a shift in national priorities, mistrust of Muslims and renewed arguments about the limits of religious tolerance.

Most important, let’s keep in mind the role education plays in healing. We teach to help children recognize and overcome the hatreds, challenges and fear that—along with the ash and sorrow—became embedded in our lives ten years ago.

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance. 

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More