By Sarah Hurd & Natalie Schaefer
“On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001 the al-Qaeda terrorist network successfully executed attacks against the United States using four commercial airplanes. The airplanes were used as missiles to commit suicide bombings on several key buildings in the US. The attacks killed 2,996 people, injured over 6,000 others, and caused at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. The death toll increased even after the initial attacks, as additional people died of cancer and respiratory diseases related to the debris from the destroyed buildings in the months and years following the attacks” (Childs). People around the world were glued to news outlets and watched tragedy unfold as they followed the paths of Flight 93, Flight 77 and the two airliners that flew into the Twin Towers in New York City.
Twenty years have passed since the attacks on September 11, 2001, an event that would devastate a nation and change the course of history forever. “...it’s not a current, contemporary issue as much for students in the classroom as much as it’s a history lesson,” said Barbara McCormack, vice president of education at the Newseum. “It’s going from the front pages of the newspaper to the history books” (Martines). Even amidst unparalleled destruction and violence, the days after 9/11 showed the incredible strength, resilience, and courage of the American people. It is this spirit of strength that we continue to honor in the lives that were lost and those who are affected; and we celebrate the resilience of our nation over the last twenty years.
It’s not surprising that teaching 9/11 as history is a delicate task. These events are, for some people, a lived experience in recent history and for others a historical event that they read about in history textbooks or learn of the events on an online resource. For the teachers that remember that day, it can be an emotional and heavy day to be in the classroom. It can be hard to approach the subject matter as it is sensitive and the images and documents that might be used as primary sources are disturbing. The story is also very much still being written, as the effects of 9/11 on American society continue to evolve. There is no national guideline in terms of teaching the topic. Schools and teachers are able to determine what is a best fit for their students and staff. Teachers say many students have similar relationships with 9/11 as adults do with events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or even the Challenger explosion: they know the facts but may not have the personal connection that comes with witnessing a tragedy and its aftermath.
There are several options that teachers can explore as they consider teaching about the events before, during and after September 11, 2001. Exploring the national memorials (Flight 93 National Memorial, 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, and the World Trade Center Memorial) might be a way to engage students in learning about the victims, heroes, and timeline of the events of the day. Teachers may explore the September 11 Initiative from StoryCorps and find a handful of stories to share with students. Listening to stories that commemorate the lives of those who were lost that day may help humanize the event for students and take it out of the realm of just dates and facts. A popular option for schools is to use the days around 9/11 as a way to focus on citizenship and those that serve. Schools may choose to host veterans, first responders, and other humanitarian groups to say thank you and to highlight the importance of these roles within American society.
As 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of these terrorist attacks on the United States there will be a flood of news stories, webinars, documentaries, and events. Each of these will offer their unique perspectives and observations. We encourage students, parents, and teachers to engage with what feels comfortable for them.
Childs, David. ““What Happened on September 11? I Honestly Don’t Know.”” Democracy & Me, 12 September 2019, https://www.democracyandme.org/what-happened-on-september-11-i-honestly-dont-know/. Accessed 7 September 2021.
Martines, Jamie. “'9/11 is now a history lesson for most students. It's hard to convey what happened without getting emotional.'” tes.com, The Hechinger Report, 12 September 2016, https://www.tes.com/news/911-now-history-lesson-most-students-its-hard-convey-what-happened-without-getting-emotional. Accessed 7 September 2021.
Curriculum & Instruction