Teaching September 11th

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

It’s hard to believe that, for an event that was so memorable and important in the lives of most teachers out there, our students probably either don’t remember September 11th or weren’t born yet. It’s officially passed from living history to an event studied much the same way as the Kennedy assassination or the landing on the Moon.

The important thing to get across to the kids is that, even though they don’t remember that Tuesday morning, its effects can still be seen today—starting with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and potentially Syria to the NSA’s surveillance of the Internet.

That being said, here are some constructive uses of the day for secondary teachers. Elementary teachers, if you have a great way to utilize September 11th, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. And before you start with any of these ideas, give some thought to reading my post from last week about broaching sensitive topics in class.

Analyze the news coverage

Here is the YouTube video of the Today show as 9/11 happened (you can find other news shows as well). Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s interesting to see just how much conjecture was going on as the attacks were happening. Frankly, they were guessing and piecing together eyewitness reports that were less than reliable. Ask the kids if they think that helped the viewers or added to the panic. Are there better ways to cover breaking news?

Write some revisionist history

What if, instead of crashing into the World Trade Center, those planes had made it harmlessly to their destinations? What would the next ten years have looked like? On the other hand, what if instead of being retaken by the passengers, United flight 93 was crashed into the White House or Capitol, as most people think was the plan? The kids have enough historical context to start hypothesizing these scenarios, or any others they can come up with.

Science and September 11th

9/11 can give some real-world examples of science concepts like structural integrity, flammability, and speed. Unfortunately, a basic Google search of physics resources for 9/11 is filled with inappropriate conspiracy theories. The best idea is to mine the report from the government commission on the attacks, particularly this chapter about what happened during that morning. They provided some specifics that weren’t available anywhere else and can really inform some equations and experiments.

Confronting stereotypes

You might remember that Muslims and Arab-Americans experienced a lot of discrimination and even some violence in the days after 9/11—some of which continues to this day. The best way to combat discrimination is education, which is where this great unit from Teaching Tolerance comes in about confronting and dispelling the stereotypes associated with Muslims and Arab-Americans. The unit itself employs some great graphic organizers and other tools that really lead the kids through separating the fiction from the facts.