Teaching 9/11 To Students with No Memory of the Event

On September 11, 2001, Sari Rosenberg was supposed to begin her first day of teaching in New York City Public Schools. Instead, she spent the day much like the rest of us, watching in horror as the World Trade Center in Manhattan collapsed due to a terrorist attack.

“It was pretty remarkable,” says Rosenberg, who is now a 15-year education veteran and an 11th grade history and AP history teacher at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan. “I’m still very sensitive to it.”

Every fall since the attack, Rosenberg starts the new school year by teaching her students about the events of 9/11 that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. She teaches them how the attack not only changed the skyline of Manhattan, but it also changed the trajectory of the United States forever. The depth and personal touch of her lessons have changed over the last decade and a half as fewer students remember the day.

“It’s become less of a sensitive topic, though it’s still very sensitive, and more of a really useful way to get kids to start thinking like historians.” She says.

One way that Rosenberg teachers her students about 9/11 is to have them interview an adult about what they remember on that day. After the students share their interviews with the class, she gives them a brief lesson about how the event has changed the country. All this is taught before reverting back to the basic history lessons such as the beginning of U.S. history in Jamestown, VA in the 1600s. But by the end of the year, she works her way back up to 9/11.

Not every teacher is able to do what Rosenberg does. Teaching about a past event fits neatly into the history curriculum, and her location makes the impact of 9/11 more visceral for her students. For other educators around the country, finding a way to teach the events of 9/11 can be a challenge, largely because there are no official guidelines.

One thing that makes teaching about 9/11 so difficult is the fact that the U.S. Department of Education is barred under federal law from playing any part in setting curriculum. Instead of guidance, they can offer a simple list of potential materials, that were published on the 10th anniversary of the attack, for teachers to consider.

There are many states that now offer a toolkit of reference materials, and there are websites where they can find sample lesson plans and other helpful ideas for teaching. Some states, but not all include instructions of the terrorist attacks as part of their academic standards, through teachers are able to determine the actual method of instruction.

Overall, the decision on how to address 9/11 to students who were born after the attacks is left up to each individual teacher. Some may struggle with figuring out the best way to deal with such an important issue that is sensitive and very complex. This is especially difficult considering that the 50 million students that are in public elementary and secondary schools today were either born after the attacks or they were too young to remember any of it.

“By now there are really no kids in elementary, middle, or high school who actually have an active memory of 9/11, so it really is at the initiative of teachers,” says Clifford Chanin who is the director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum’s teaching program. “These events have shaped the world these kids have grown into and they need to understand why the world is as it is.”

“On the basic, simple level, kids don’t always realize you didn’t always have to take your shoes of when you went to the airport,” Chanin says. That would be a good place for teachers to start if they are stuck on curriculum ideas. They could begin with the small changes that have been made since the 9/11 attacks and how things were different before that tragic day.

For younger children, they could learn more about the first responders who went in to help rescue people from the destruction. Teaching them about the importance of having fire fighters, rescue teams and especially police officers during this day and age is a great way to honor the efforts of those who served that day and make learning about 9/11 simple for the kindergarten and 1st grade students. Older students may get more interest out of watching documentaries or doing online research on the attacks and learning more about the people who were true heroes on that day. Staying focused on the positive side of the events is a good way to teach younger students about the attacks without adding all the complexity and fear into the instruction.