Ten years ago. To a pre-teen, that’s a lifetime. Students in the eighth grade and below have almost no memories of the events of September 11, 2001, which makes the choice to honor the anniversary in schools a problem – is it our duty to teach them the legacy? Or are we unnecessarily burdening their delicate psyches with a trauma that isn’t theirs?
When asked who has distinct personal memories of the day, the twelve and thirteen year olds who respond mainly remember their parents’ reactions. Too young to understand the events for themselves, all they knew was that their mother was crying or their father was worried. And that made an indelible impression.
Now that these children are old enough to put the events together with the emotions, and take something meaningful from it all, schools can and should educate young generations in a sensitive, conscientious way.
Many high-quality, thoughtfully-prepared curriculums exist for teaching youth about the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. An important component of these programs is the “what now, what next?” step. TributeWTC, for example, offers video interviews with survivors and witnesses who have come through their grief and fear to embrace healing efforts. Their stories show how resilience is a gift that can be shared with others. Pearson Education’s Online Learning Exchange offers lessons where students can learn the facts and clarify their understanding of the events. Teaching 9/11: The September 11th Education Program is a curriculum package designed and produced by The September 11th Education Trust, a group of victims’ family members, survivors, rescue workers and educators, with the intent to teach life-long lessons and inspire young people with personal accounts and primary sources.
It is lessons like these that justify taking a few days away from the official curriculum. But teachers don’t have to abandon the standards to address the 9/11 legacy. Teacher’s can focus on a variety of aspects of the events and connect to their subject areas. Science teachers, for instance, can guide students in learning about the structural, architectural, and engineering aspects of the attacks and how buildings such as the Twin Towers were impacted despite a supposedly crash-proof design. They can also look at how the ash and smoke affected air quality in the area and learn about particulate matter. Social Studies and Language Arts teachers such as Michelle O’Neill, an eighth grade teacher in Carlsbad, take advantage of the opportunity to teach about using primary and secondary sources to understand how we get information about events in history. She also extends the student’s understanding by asking them to design a memorial, requiring them to justify their design choices with significance to the victims, survivors, families, and community. She says that students seem interested in “gaining a deeper perspective of how this tragedy is now part of our country’s story…it’s history, and that they lived through it. Someday, they will be a source of information to share with their own children and grandchildren.”
And that is perhaps the most important reason to include lessons about 9/11 in schools, especially as the years pass. Not only will the children we educate be a source of facts for their peers, but they will help to convey the importance and impact of the events in a way that influences our country’s future, and the climate of their communities. To do that, they must know that their lives and their country’s reality were defined by the horrific events of that day and by the choices made in the months and years after, and their own choices must be deliberate and measured. If guiding them through this education causes questions and emotions, then we know the lessons are striking home and the lives lost on September 11, 2001, were not in vain, but form the foundation of a new generation of conscientious citizens.
Isn’t that, after all, what schools are supposed to do?