Each September, Sonia Corlew’s middle school class at Sycamore Canyon School in Newbury Park, California, reads Billy Collins’ poem “The Names” as a way to talk about the anniversary of 9/11. While the 8th grade English teacher asks students to analyze and annotate the piece — which includes the names of casualties from the attacks — while even discussing poetic devices, her main reason for having them discuss the poem is to learn about the day.
“Deep down, that poem isn’t part of my curriculum,” said Corlew. “But I bring it in to honor all those who were lost and have kids remember and never forget, because they don’t have the full story.”
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, some educators are looking for ways to bring details of that day into the classroom. For most K-12 teachers, their students know only the day as history, as they’re likely too young to have had any first-hand experience themselves.
For some, though, they’ll be spending a class period, or perhaps more, talking about the day by reading a poem written by the U.S. poet laureate at the time, or perhaps writing "thank you" notes to send to first responders today. The goal for teachers who will be talking about 9/11 this year is to bring some of the history of the day into their classroom — and to their students.
Bring families and the community into the experience
Corlew, who added the 9/11 unit to her class about eight years ago, also includes students’ families in her assignment. She sends an email home with a link to a reading of Collins’ poem, as well as information about the students’ assignment to interview a family member about their personal memories of 9/11.
When students return to class with their interviews, Corlew has everyone share what they learned and hear the perspectives of what parents or other family members may have experienced — and that includes hearing from children whose families may have lived in another country 20 years ago.
Corlew said rather than pushback from parents about talking about 9/11 during the school day, she gets notes thanking her for bringing the subject up and for giving the adults a chance to talk about their own experience.
“They’ll tell me how much they liked sharing their stories with their children, and about what the day was like,” she said.
Terri McDaid also starts her 6th grade unit on 9/11 at Cedar Crest Middle School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, by sharing what she was doing on that day in 2001. McDaid, who wasn’t teaching that year, was at a doctor’s appointment with her young daughters, found out about the attacks only when she returned to her car and started hearing news accounts.
Like Corlew, she encourages her students to go home and ask the adults in their lives what they were doing and where they were when they heard about the attacks, as well as any other memories they have of the day.
Additionally, McDaid links her 9/11 lesson to a service project, focusing on first responders in the school’s community, and includes firefighters as well other emergency personnel. Some years, her class goes in-person to visit police and fire stations, as well as ambulance and safety workers, bringing handmade cards and baked goods the students donate. Even during the pandemic, McDaid still had her class make cards and send them out.
Engage with memorial resources
McDaid also typically has her class attend a live chat hosted by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, where students can talk one-on-one with museum volunteers and staff. Prior to the event, McDaid has the class submit questions they want to ask, and then she selects several to present.
This year, the museum is also hosting a 30-minute on-demand webinar, “Anniversary in the Schools,” which will feature first-person accounts from different people and what they remember from that day.
“I like them to know the events and the personal stories of people, how they were affected and how people responded.”
teacher at Cedar Crest Middle School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania
McDaid believes the more personal the accounts her students hear, the better they’ll understand the impact of 9/11. In addition to attending the online session with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, she brings in books like “The Red Bandanna,” which tells the story of Welles Crowther, an equities trader and volunteer firefighter who lost his life leading people from the World Trade Center the morning of the attacks. Other discussions cover topics like the fireboats that rescued people from downtown Manhattan along the Hudson River.
For the 20th anniversary of the attacks, other educators at the school, including those teaching English language arts and reading, are working with McDaid to broaden the unit, including memorials outside of New York like the one at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.
“I like them to know the events and the personal stories of people, how they were affected and how people responded,” she said.
The New York Historical Society also has some of its own artifacts from 9/11 digitized online, including a worker’s ID badge from the World Trade Center, along with objects found after the buildings had collapsed.
Preparing to support students
Laura Tavares, program director for organizational learning and thought leadership at Facing History and Ourselves, believes even those educators who may not be formally designing 9/11 units should be prepared for students to come in with questions.
“They can look at what are some of the legacies of this day in history, the justice and injustice, the harm and responsibility.”
program director for organizational learning and thought leadership at Facing History and Ourselves
With the 20th anniversary approaching, students are likely to still see videos and images throughout the day, if not the week, on social media and across multiple media sources, she said. That means children are very likely to come to school and want to talk about what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard, or even share stories about how the day affected their own families.
“I might consider making space for students to be reflective,” Tavares said.
To ensure they’re prepared to support students, Tavares encourages teachers to tap into Facing History & Ourselves' Checklist which includes suggestions on how to talk about current events in the classroom. There are also resources to help students process emotionally difficult experiences like 9/11 by using resources that range from journaling to graffiti boards.
Finally, Tavares encourages educators to make room to talk about how the aftermath of 9/11 affected people in the days, months and years that followed.
“They can look at what are some of the legacies of this day in history, the justice and injustice, the harm and responsibility,” she said. “They can talk about what we see as we look back 20 years, through that lens.”