Teaching Students About 9/11

A nonprofit group offers lesson plans and tools to help teach students about the September 11 attacks.

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Lisa Torres asks her students to get out a piece of paper and jot down their thoughts on the following question: "What were you doing on September 11?" The teenagers in this 11th-grade American history class—most of whom were around 9 years old at the time of the attacks—take a moment to think about what they can recall from that tragic day eight years ago. Then, the students begin to talk out loud, a little reticently at first, about their personal memories. Eventually, they're sharing stories with one another about where they were and what they were doing when the news broke that four planes had crashed into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pa.

Torres, who teaches at River Dell High School in Oradell, N.J., then poses a different set of discussion questions—this time more structured around critical thinking skills—and asks her students to reflect on them as they watch a short film of interviews with 9/11 survivors and victims' family members, as well as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The discussion questions include such queries as, "How would you explain 9/11 today to someone who was born on Sept. 12, 2001?" and "Do you think those killed on 9/11 were civilian casualties of war?"

Located about 20 miles north of Manhattan, River Dell High School—which lost three of its alumni in the attacks on the World Trade Center—is one of a handful of schools in eight states this week to test a new 9/11 curriculum developed for middle and high school students. The makers of the program are calling it the country's first comprehensive 9/11 curriculum. Other schools in New York City, California, Alabama, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas are pilot testing the program, which is taught using videos, discussions, and interactive digital exercises, including one that has students map global terrorist activity with Google Earth software.

The program was created by the Brick, N.J.-based September 11th Education Trust, a nonprofit organization representing survivors and families. The group partnered with Social Studies School Service, an educational materials distributor, and the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College to develop the lessons, which are based on primary sources culled from more than 240 hours of archival footage and 80 interviews with witnesses, family members of victims, and politicians.

The curriculum's goals are twofold: to help students understand the human dimension of the events of September 11 and to impart critical thinking and writing skills that students can apply to all areas of their lives.

At a press conference on Tuesday at a hotel blocks from the World Trade Center site, Giuliani said the program can help students think critically about the attacks as both a historic event and one that shapes the present, noting the continued threat of terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Teachers say that today's middle and high school students might be too young to have strong memories of the attacks, so the program can help them develop insight into what actually happened.

"Students are getting progressively younger as we move further and further away from the events," says Torres. In a few years, students who are taught about the attacks will not even have been alive when they occurred, adds Anthony Gardner, executive director of the Education Trust, whose brother died in the World Trade Center.

Casey Gillingham, a senior at Lincoln High School in Vincennes, Ind., says she remembers vividly what she was doing on 9/11 as the events unfolded. But the lessons she's received through her school's pilot implementation of the curriculum have helped her understand the history of conflicts in the Middle East, she says.

At Lincoln High, Michael Hutchison, who teaches U.S. history and government, has been using the week to incorporate the program's "timelines and personal narratives" lesson into his classes. Students examined two timelines, one coming from the 9/11 Commission Report and the other covering a longer period of 30 years, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Students compared and contrasted the two timelines and analyzed how each might affect a person's interpretation of the events. In addition, students had to find people to interview to learn about their experience on 9/11 and how it affected them.