September 11th, 2001, is a day that will forever stick in the minds of most Americans, but for many young people 9/11 is no longer a current event but a historical one. How do we teach this event that has forever altered so many aspects of American life from our military conflicts to persistent Islamophobia to government surveillance? At present, 9/11 sits on the edge of history and current event with most students being born after but with many families still being affected. These might seem like difficult issues to discuss with students, especially when considering the emotions surrounding such a traumatic event.
There are many resources on the internet available for teachers to use when teaching about the attacks on 9/11 as well as adjacent issues. In addition to using these resources, asking students to read literature or watch a film about 9/11 could be beneficial.
- The National September 11 Memorial & Museum: Lessons Plans: These plans were created by the museum in conjunction with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) and the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education has created series of lessons plans for grades K-2nd, 3rd-5th. 6th-8th, and 9th-12th. Each lesson written by the NYCDOE includes activities under the categories Community & Conflict, Historical Impact, Heroes and Service, and Memory and Memorialization. The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education also provides activities and lessons for each grade level under the categories of The Aftermath; Heroic Rescue, Recovery, and Cleanup; Historial Impact of 9/11; History of the WTC; Individuals and 9/11; Making of a Memorial Museum; and Mourning, Memorializing, and Meaning-Making of 9/11. Each lesson is related to Common Core standards and offers step-by-step instructions and questions.
- 9/11 Anniversary Teaching Guide: This comprehensive guide offers lesson plans for a multitude of grade levels (K-2nd, 3-5, middle school, and High school). Each lesson includes objectives, questions, activities, directions on creating community agreements to make the classroom a safe and conducive space for discussion, and age-appropriate additional activities and resources. In addition to the detailed lessons, the page also includes links to guides addressing bias that might arise and one focusing on teaching controversial issues, as well as additional helpful resources.
- Teaching and Learning About 9/11 With The New York Times: This page collects a number of resources including lesson plans, primary sources, news and video coverage from the days around the attacks and the ten year anniversary, and key discussion questions. More context on the American response is available on the page with lessons about Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The selected articles connected with the lessons explore the impact of 9/11 on a large variety of people, groups, and industries. One thing to bear in mind with this lesson is that it treats 9/11 mostly as a current event since it is based on reporting from the time and not a historical event as it might be for many students, but the numerous first-hand and contemporary secondary reports can help students empathize and understand what happened that day and how people felt.
- How 9/11 Changed America: Four Major Lasting Impacts: In this article from KQED, students can learn about how the US has changed since 9/11. It explores the impact of 9/11 on ongoing wars, immigration and deportation, airport security, and surveillance. This article can help students connect issues they see in their daily life to the events of 9/11. There is also a lesson plan linked on the page based on the article that includes an activity and discussion questions with the associated common core standards.
- How to teach 9/11 when most students were born after the tragedy: This article from Education Dive addresses how teachers can help students learn about 9/11 as a history lesson instead of a lived experience. The article talks about the strategies that some teachers use to help students empathize and connect with the experiences of those on 9/11. It also links to another online resource to help implement those strategies of sharing firsthand experiences.
- America’s Deliberate Empathy in Teaching 9/11: This article from the Atlantic talks about teaching students before just around and after the attacks, and how we portrayed these events from students. The article looks at how we see an event of positive unity after a day of unspeakable tragedy, and practice emphasizing empathy with students to try to experience deep physiological marks 9/11 has left on America. The article also links several resources including:
- Remembrance and Memory As Seen Through the Eyes of Artists: This lesson plan is designed for middle schoolers can help students understand the emotional impact of the events on people their own age.
- 911 Materials for Teachers: These resources from the Department of Education that include lesson plans and strategies for creating positive school environments.
- Memories of September 11, 2001: This site put together by the Media Education Lab includes short videos of people talking about their experiences on 9/11. Students can create their own videos too or interview family members for videos and ask questions. There is also an included curriculum guide, which can guide student use of the site. It will help students understand what happened and how people felt about it, even if they weren’t alive during the events.
- September 11th Initiative: This StoryCorps projected was started in 2005 with the goal of recording one story for each person who lost their life. The result is an extensive collection of stories relating to people affected by the events. Many of the stories are very emotional though and could bring up emotions for students who have experienced trauma. Make sure you advise your students of this to make sure students have the emotional support needed to watch and listen to such stories. For more information on implementing warnings, check out this resource page on trigger warnings.
- The Flight that Fought Back: In this 90-minute-long made-for-television documentary students can learn about the heroic actions of those on United flight 93 on September 11th, which was hijacked but diverted from its intended target at the cost of the lives of all those on board. This is an upsetting event, so we advise you to talk to your students about what happened before watching and check-in afterward.
- Inside 9/11: This is a National-Geographic three-part documentary. The first part, War on America, covers the lead up to 9/11, including the planning of the attacks but also further back to the Soviet-Afgan War. The second part, Zero Hour, covers the attacks themselves, and the third part, The War Continues, covers events up to the death of Osama bin Laden.
- Man in the Red Bandanna: This documentary tells the story of the heroic actions of Welles Crowther, an equities trader, known for sacrificing his own life to save others on 9/11. This another upsetting if inspiring video, so make sure to check in with your students and be mindful that not all students will feel comfortable watching this.
- Boatlift – An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resistance: This is a short documentary narrated by Tom Hanks about the evacuation of lower Manhattan on 9/11 by boat operators of people fleeing the sites of the attack in what would become the largest sea evacuation in history. This provides a look at some of the overlooked heroes of 9/11 and gives students a sense of all the people who helped in the 9/11 aftermath.
Discussing the multifaceted issues of 9/11 and its response will be a tough conversation to have with students, especially considering how recent it is, but it is an important part of our history that allows us to understand how we got now and our present climate. I would recommend disclosing the information you will be discussing to students and their families before you begin the lesson to give them the opportunity to voice any concerns.
- What Happened on 9/11?: Students, especially young ones, born after the attacks they might not have a complete understanding of what happened on 9/11. This article from Scholastic geared towards younger students. If students have little familiarity with what happened, this is a good starting place. gives an overview is language easy for students to understand. You can also ask students to think critically about the portrayal of the Iraq War in the article and think about the response to 9/11.
- 9/11 Digital Archive: On this site there are more than 150,000 digital items, including thousands of first-hand accounts, which can help students understand not only what happened but also the emotional impact so they can empathize. Some of these photos and accounts are quite upsetting so exercise caution and discuss with students beforehand, so they can be prepared. For more information on implementing warnings, check out this resource page on trigger warnings.
- 9/11: The Day of the Attacks: This Atlantic article gives a brief overview of the events of 9/11 and then displays numerous photos of not only attacks on the twin towers but also of the events in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. The photos can be graphic and quite upsetting, so it is advised that you warn students beforehand, especially if there are students with a history of trauma. For more information on implementing warnings, check out this resource page on trigger warnings.