Social Studies Opinion

We Lived Through History on 9/11. Our Students Are Doing the Same Today

3 guiding principles for teaching students about the terrorist attacks
By Brandon Graves — September 09, 2021 4 min read
Members of the military are seen on the grounds of the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial before the start of the September 11th Pentagon Memorial Observance at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2018.
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The emotions brought on by the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, are oddly reminiscent of what I felt that day—fear.

I was a freshman at Howard University in Washington when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. I didn’t know anything was wrong until I was dismissed from class and listened to several voicemails from worried friends and family. At the time, I didn’t realize I was a part of history, which is something I’m reinforcing now with my own students about the pandemic.

The major impacts of Sept. 11 weren’t limited to a single day. The attacks altered the way we lived, played, and worked. People refused to fly in airplanes. We began to see armed guards in subway stations. Many Muslim Americans reported experiencing increased intolerance after the attacks and the subsequent military interventions abroad that followed. Although the country was scared, we had to continue going to class, work, and the grocery store. The nation had to press on. That tragic day taught us that we could handle tough situations and overcome, together, though this togetherness did not come without its challenges.

This past year has also been unimaginably hard for our students. They are dealing with a lot more than first-day-of-school jitters this year. Our students are dealing with grief, fear, anxiety, and even trauma. Some have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Some haven’t interacted socially with anyone in over a year. Last fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that emergency room visits related to mental health had spiked 24 percent among children ages 5 to 11 and up 31 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds.

Sept. 11 reinforced the importance of banding together during adversity. Students learn best when they can apply lessons to their own lives and find meaning in them. While the country had some disagreements over U.S. strikes in the Middle East, we were able to unite—unlike the polarization we’ve experienced during the pandemic. If we can show young people how a tragic event in American history made us stronger, they can carry this perspective into their futures and impact the here and now.

Here are some connections educators can make to discuss Sept. 11 in their classrooms 20 years later:

We are all a part of history. One day, our students will be asked what it was like living through the pandemic. If we teach lessons of resiliency, empathy, and kindness now, our students will be able to use those ideas to explain how they overcame challenges to future generations.

As a kid, I grew up thinking, “I just have a life, I’m not a part of history.” I heard my parents talk about where they were during the March on Washington or when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Kids today know there are powerful things going on right now in their communities, whether it’s social-justice movements or changes brought on by the pandemic. We are all part of history and, even if in a small way, we can affect it. We must make sure students feel empowered to ignite good in their neighborhoods, schools, and communities. Some of my best practices include starting with what kids can understand, focusing on three main concepts, and sticking to the basics. For example, when discussing Sept. 11 with students in grades K-3, teachers might focus on these concepts to tell the narrative:

  1. There was an event in the United States we commonly refer to as “9/11.” This event affected the entire country.
  2. There were many heroes that day and in the days after.
  3. Although we were faced with tragedy, we emerged from it closer together.

Tragedy affects everyone. The pandemic and Sept. 11 were felt by everyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Whether you were in New York City or Biloxi, Miss., you had a personal connection to the attacks. For kids born after Sept. 11, hearing our personal connections and watching archival videos and interviews with first responders makes it more real and raw. If students understand these perspectives and hear from the real-life heroes who responded that day, it will empower them to find ways to be a hero in their communities using their own talents.

Together, we can overcome. Teaching elementary-aged students that togetherness can overcome tragedy is an important lesson. After the events of Sept. 11, this country came together in new ways. Similarly, the pandemic requires action by everyone—whether it’s masking up or getting vaccinated. We all play a role in improving our communities.

Service projects are a great way to inspire action among your classrooms. Creating a flag for first responders and community superheroes or planting trees in recognition of the original Survivor Tree in New York City shows kids there is meaning in giving, that they can express their emotions and connect with others in meaningful ways. There are also many other Sept. 11 specific activities educators may consider using in the classroom.

The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 will be another difficult conversation to have with students coming out of a year of social isolation and virtual learning. But if we can make these connections and share our own experiences, it will empower the next generation to improve our world.

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