If you’re an educator or parent, you probably remember exactly where you were on the morning of September 11th, 2001. It was a day that started like any other for so many, but one that changed everything instantly. While this year our nation is remembering the 20th anniversary, the pain and emotion of what happened that hallow day is still felt by all.
Kids Discover is a New York City-based company, with many on our team being lifelong New Yorkers. While it was an emotional experience putting into words what happened that day, we believe in the importance of having age-appropriate resources to help children learn about this chapter in American history, no matter how painful. Our new Unit, September 11, will bring to light the more concrete details from the morning, including events that lead up to it and the immediate effect afterward.
You may have some reservations about discussing this event with your classroom and children. Some of you may have already decided not to because of the problematic themes required to unpack that day. Because you will always know your learners better than us, we fully support your decision.
For those interested in discussing September 11th with your students, know that this topic is not something to assign in isolation. It requires an in-depth pre-reading dialogue to prepare your students and a post-reading conference, so they have space to express how they feel and decompress. Remind your students that they are safe. This is not an easy undertaking, and we applaud you for being up to the challenge.
Within this extensive blog post are best practices you may want to utilize during this lesson. When you decide to implement, it will potentially be emotionally taxing. Know that you are not alone. As a nation, we will never forget.
Why This Matters
It can be so tempting to protect our children from what we find uncomfortable on the news and in current events. For some, the wounds of what happened in 2001 and the following years are so fresh that talking about them seems like an impossible task. Take a moment to remember that if your student is currently in elementary or middle school, they have no memory of what happened that day. They experience the effects and may not even realize it. Still, students are so inquisitive and may ask questions that are difficult to answer. Instead of brushing it to the side, engaging in a healthy discussion will help them process the information while guiding them through the emotions that may arise.
Discuss With Administrators and Guidance Counselors
As with any other emotional discussion, I always recommend beginning the conversation with your administrators. You can walk them through your lesson, show the resources you intend to share so that everyone is comfortable with the discussion that is about to take place. It’s also a professional courtesy as they may have parents and guardians reach out to express their concerns.
I also recommend including your school’s guidance counselor. It is difficult to predict how some students will emotionally react. There may be previous traumas and family dynamics under the surface that you’re not fully aware of. Having someone to help guide them further may be crucial to your classroom’s well-being and give administrators additional confidence.
Reach Out to Parents
The next group of adults who need to be brought up to speed are the parents and guardians in your classroom. Similar to how you included your administration, share an outline for your lesson plans and what resources you intend to use. Urge the importance of continuing the conversation at home. Families may fill in the gaps to give students an even more precise level of understanding. Some parents may be extremely uncomfortable with the topic and may want their children to be excluded. It’s important to respect that decision and find alternative plans, ones where they aren’t in your classroom.
Create a Safe Environment
Discussing September 11th and the theme of terrorism can be a scary one. Fear within your students may rise to the surface. Before you begin the conversation, the number one priority must be to create a secure environment. Your students are safe, and they are loved. As this is the beginning of the year, it may still be an ongoing lesson as you establish classroom norms for optimal learning. It’s also a message that needs repeating through this challenging lesson. Consider it a mantra. Subconsciously, you may need the reminder too.
To further build a culture of safety and love, consider beginning your lesson with creating a classroom mantra together with your students. Some sample ideas could be:
“We are in a safe, inclusive classroom.” or “We can talk about hard things and support each other.” Either have this on display for your students to refer back to or have them write it down on a notecard to keep with them. If they find themselves struggling with the classroom discussion or what they are reading, they can turn to this mantra as a source of encouragement and strength.
In the same light, you may want to keep a particularly caring eye on your Muslim or Middle-Eastern students. In a post-9/11 world, anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment skyrocketed. For some families, that discrimination is still felt today. Creating a safe classroom isn’t just about protecting from what lies beyond your school walls, but from emotions that may arise inside your classroom. Sadly, some students could come in parroting prejudiced remarks they hear the adults in their life say. Quickly and respectfully nip it in the bud, and know that a further conversation with your guidance counselor may need to be scheduled.
Be Honest With Your Own Emotions
It’s hard to think of a classroom topic that will evoke more pain and sorrow than what you’re about to venture on. Emotion in a classroom doesn’t always need to be avoided but can be a healthy display for children to learn from. Days before you begin your lesson, do an emotional evaluation to try and gauge how you may feel in the classroom. From there, start your lesson, in that safe environment you created, by explaining how you feel to your students. Be honest with them and describe how old you were and where you were when you heard the news. You could say something along the lines of:
“While this was 20 years ago, this doesn’t feel like it was that long ago to me. It’s something that still makes me sad because I remember so much of it. If I begin to cry or find it hard to speak, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong, or you need to be worried. I respect you so much as great thinkers and learners that I want to discuss this difficult conversation with you.”
If you do find yourself getting too overwhelmed, take a pause and take a long deep breath. Give yourself even a second to refind your composure. Have your students join in for one collective and communal breath.
Since your school may be practicing social distancing measures, a group hug after your lessons may not be appropriate, even though therapeutic. Still, find some time in your busy day to practice self-love and give kind words to each student individually. Thank them for respecting your feelings and for being part of your lesson.
When You Don’t Have An Answer
Your students may ask some pretty difficult, poignant questions. They may even ask questions that you are not comfortable answering. It is a sign that they are beginning to process and attempting to understand the lesson. At the beginning of the lesson, consider being up-front with your students by saying, “I may not have all of the answers, but we can still learn and grow together.”
Sometimes you as an educator or parent need a moment to reflect on the question. You could say, “That’s such a great question, and helping you find an answer is important to me. I’m going to take a little time to think about your question, and when I have an answer, I’m going to let you know.” From there, you can invite your students to discuss and explore possible answers as a group, either from the reading or from their own experiences. Some may be more comfortable putting their thoughts to paper instead of verbally expressing with a group. Give students that option too.
This is such a quick and straightforward conversation, and it can happen in an instant. You are modeling an essential step to openness and learning. By being honest with your students, you are fostering a growth mindset mentality. They will feel seen and more comfortable with asking questions. This will be a huge element for success in this lesson and lessons going forward for the rest of the school year.
Addressing Current Events
One of the most challenging parts about creating this Unit is that history is still currently writing itself. The current events on the news are a continued part of this story. Your students may have additional questions about what they see on the news or what they hear their families discussing at home. It may even be reigniting the anger or frustration that they felt so many years ago for some parents.
Since you’re speaking with kids, try focusing on the hard facts about the events in Afghanistan. Leave your opinions and assumptions outside of the classroom. Instead, if your students bring up what they see on the news, show empathy for the families involved and remind them that they are safe. Conflicts overseas and the geopolitics involved shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of your young students.
End in Hope
When discussing a tragedy of this scale, it’s so easy to only see the despair and darkness of that day. To give your students a sense of hope and optimism, be sure to honor the heroes that helped save countless lives: the first responders, volunteers, and good Samaritans who sacrificed everything for complete strangers. Showing the various memorials around the country explains that the lives we lost will always be cherished and never forgotten. Even if you live thousands of miles away, consider writing letters to the Firefighters, Police Officers, and EMTs in your community.
Our September 11 Unit is just one piece of a comprehensive discussion on the events of September 11th. For more resources, including activities, webinars, and beyond, we highly recommend visiting the 9/11 Museum and Memorial website, particularly their page for students and teachers. Each item is expertly created by those closest to the memorial to help guide you even further. This is also something you may want to refer parents to so they can continue the conversation at home.
Additionally, Barnes and Noble has an incredible list of books that honor the heroes and share the inspiring stories found from that day. Add them to your own classroom library or save them for students who genuinely are inspired to read more.
Finally, I cannot thank you enough for being here. As parents, guardians, and educators, the most difficult discussions with children are never academic. It’s the ones that require so much heart and love that exhaust us the most. These moments are also the ones that teach the most. While the lessons taught won’t necessarily align with your state’s standards or be found on the end-of-the-year assessment, it helps to teach a level of empathy and kindness that they will have for years to come.