Bringing Lessons from September 11 into the Classroom

As we approach the ten year anniversary of the attacks on September 11, it’s important to know how to teach about the events of that day. It may seem like an overwhelming task: there’s so much to know, and it’s hard to know what’s appropriate and what’s important, and how to communicate that information.

While elementary school-aged children have only ever known a post-9/11 world, they may be confused about the event itself and the media attention surrounding the events of that day. Older children may remember some of the news, but not really understand the many separate incidents and sources from which they hear about it.

If you choose to discuss the attacks on September 11, 2001 in your classroom, try one of these approaches.

Consider the Source

This method is useful for teaching older students, and may be modified for either history or literature classes. Focus on a single event, and not the broader collective of events from that day. Whether it’s the plane crash at the Pentagon, the community response at ground zero, or some other aspect of the tragedy, select one; explain how that event was one part of the total number of incidents on that day. Gather a selection of first-person perspectives or articles about that single event that vary in point of view and tone.

This provides context and reinforces the idea that history isn’t defined by a single point of view. It also helps communicate the differences in personal experiences, and how they collectively shape the whole.

Make Connections To the Present

Instead of looking at 9/11 as an isolated historical event, view the anniversary as an opportunity to discuss other related topics, like bullying, hostility and how to deal with frustration and anger. Pull in your school’s guidance team to use this date as a means to connect with issues meaningful to students of all ages. In this way, students may more easily relate to the events on 9/11 and understand related issues in a proactive way.

Additionally, this gives students who may be frightened of the images of 9/11 they may see in the media a chance to understand these feelings and talk about them in a safe, supportive environment.

Create a Wall of Heroes

Discuss what it means to be a hero, and make a list of attributes your students use to define heroism. Leave this list up where everyone can see it. Then ask your students to identify someone from their lives who is a hero and encourage them to define the characteristics that make each of these people heroes, even if they aren’t famous. Give voice to those strengths, and post the stories for others to read. In sharing their stories, students will understand how precious life is, and how much a single person can impact others – in a positive and lasting way.

As teachers, it’s important to address history in a way that makes it a positive learning experience for students. By preparing a sensitive, relevant lesson plan for teaching about September 11, you’ll help your students understand the world in which they live, and how they can make it a better place.

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