Surreal – Teaching 9/11

I loved having a first hour prep period.  My team always met 1st period near the guidance office, and we would hash through the issues that needed hashing – who was doing what that day, what we wanted to do the next day, etc.  I was supposed to be conducting a writing test that all other 9th graders were to take, and I remember that I thought it was a stupid test – that we could do better.  But, I was planning on going along with it.

Someone near us said something like, “Whoa.  A plane just flew into one of the World Trade Center towers?”


At the time, there were no TVs accessible in the building without a MacGyver-esque arrangement of an antenna, a coat hanger and a lunch tray.  We tried to get online, but it was impossible to find any information or to get pages to load (dial-up).  Some other teacher in the area located a radio – not even a boombox – and about 8 of us gathered around it, depression-era style, and listened to NPR as the second plane hit.  I remember feeling like this was so surreal, strange, and otherworldly.  How careless, was my first thought – who taught those folks how to fly?  Then someone on the radio said something about other planes.  That it was clear that it was an attack.  Words like “threat” and “terrorism,” “high alert” and “security.”  Two additional planes.  Were there more?  Was the whole system hijacked?  Are they coming to the Mall of America to take that out, too?  What is going on?

Then, the bell rang.  We’re off.

That day was incredible.  I couldn’t ignore what was happening, and my teammates couldn’t, either.  There were students in our classroom whose parents were flying that day to NY, who were flying, period.  People in our community who were supposed to be there – moms, dads, wives, husbands…no one knew anything for a long time.  I’ve mentioned this before, but my teammate, a social studies teacher, jumped in the ring with a ton of information on his class on the Middle East – he deconstructed what terrorist cells were, and how they operated, and every student in our class left knowing more than when they came in.  The teacher next door asked me how the writing test was going.  I looked at her in what must have been complete disbelief and told her that there was no way that was going to happen that day.

As time passed beyond that day, we recognized September 11 as a national memory, processing it with discussions of belief, politics, and fear.  Some years in the last ten, we didn’t even spend a lot of time on it – mentioning it as an event, referring to it in class, but not a complete lesson devoted to it.  Then a different teacher came into my team, and wanted to show a video called something like, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” so we did.  Many kids hid their faces.  Some cried.  We talked about it later, and realized – they don’t know any of this – they were too young.  For some of the students, this was the first time they had seen any of the footage, heard any of the distress calls.

10 years later, we are a different nation in many ways.  The media coverage of everything from Libya to the Kardashians is pervasive and almost unavoidable.  As educators and advocates of children, how do we address this pivotal event?  To what extent do we do so, and on what levels?  I don’t have these answers, but I wanted to provide some wonderful links to curriculum that may help.

Good luck with this important and delicate task. Let us know how (if) you plan to address the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

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2 Responses to Surreal – Teaching 9/11

  1. I remember my colleague down the hall told me between 2nd and 3rd period.
    I remember listening for the PA to come on so we could listen to our principal, a leader, any leader who might assuage our fears.
    I remember students dropping out of class like flies as worried parents came to pull them out of school uncertain of where the next “attack” would be.
    I remember the students who stayed…the ones who weren’t pulled out…I remember reading them the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling…trying to find some words of wisdom to reflect on at their age.
    I remember Open House was cancelled that night.
    I remember everyone was at church next Sunday. Airline workers were in uniform, police and firemen were in uniform. Our minister did not preach, he merely asked us what was on our minds. Our community came together to process the reality of it.
    I remember mayor Giuliani appearing on SNL giving permission for our nation to laugh again, a thought I had not considered.

  2. Georgette, as always, thank you for sharing. It’s remarkable to me how each community processed things in their own way, but there are so many ways in which we are similar in our memories. How all of the students must have felt…the ones who were pulled out, and the ones who weren’t….
    One of our students had an eerie feeling that day – she is adopted, and couldn’t shake the feeling that one of her birth parents had perished that day. Sure enough, her birth father, Tom Burnett, helped to lead the “Let’s Roll” passengers on Flight 93. Our student didn’t find this out until Tom’s widow contacted her, and they connected. He was just waiting until his daughter turned 18, and he wanted to meet her.
    Amazing stories came from that day.

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