Bringing 9/11 Into the Classroom—10 Years Later


My son was a 16-year-old high school junior on 9/11/2001. He could see the twin towers burning a few miles across the harbor from his school in Staten Island, N.Y.  Across the country, other students watched the images on television, either as they were happening or later, as they looped endlessly on cable news.

Today’s juniors were only 6 years old that day. Most of today’s elementary students weren’t even born. Just because they have lived in a world where “9/11” has always been shorthand for terror attacks, doesn’t mean that they know a lot about them. Nor does it mean that they understand the tremendous impact of those events. What they do know and believe, however, will most likely reflect what they have heard at home from parents and the media. 

And in the weeks ahead, they will surely be hearing and seeing more. There will be hours of special programming that will dwell on the events of the day, the images of terror and the emotional aftermath for survivors and first-responders. Educators and parents need to be ready.

Whether schools opt simply to memorialize the victims or decide to turn the anniversary into a teachable moment, one thing is clear: It’s going to be complicated. Educators bringing 9/11 into the classroom, particularly during the anniversary, need to be skilled and sensitive.

With that in mind, Teaching Tolerance offers some tips for educators as the anniversary approaches.

Children need to feel safe. For younger children especially, discussion of the day should include messages of reassurance that they are safe. Talk about the fact that the attack was shocking because it was unusual, and that nothing like it has happened since then in the United States. Emphasize stories of heroic and selfless actions rather than stories about victims. 

Involve families. Work with the PTA to get the word out to parents to monitor closely what’s on television, and remind them that scenes of violence can lead to anxiety in vulnerable children.

Understand how wide the 9/11 impact has been. Children across the country—not just those in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania—have been personally affected by the events and aftermath of 9/11. Consider whether your students include:

  • Children of military personnel, who are already anxious about their parents’ wellbeing;
  • Children who have lost a military parent in Iraq or Afghanistan;
  • Children whose parents are firefighters, police officers and other first-responders;
  • Children who are Muslims;
  • Children whose families have come from countries where terrorism is much more common; and
  • Children vulnerable to anxiety or depression.

Be aware of what children know and think about 9/11. Even though they don’t remember the day, students will have a narrative in their heads about what happened. It’s the rare family that will have ignored 9/11. The narrative however, might be long on opinion and short on details. If you are going to teach older students about the day or its consequences, be prepared to confront some strongly felt beliefs calmly.  

Anticipate questions. For many children, this anniversary will be the first time they’ve really talked about 9/11 in school. They will have questions, many of which cannot be easily answered. Plan ahead by meeting with other teachers to brainstorm likely questions and to decide what’s age-appropriate.

It’s not enough to remember. Many communities will memorialize those killed on 9/11 and the men and women who have been casualties in the resulting wars. Educators need to go beyond memorializing to create lessons that help students make sense of the world and be agents of positive change.

There is no dearth of ways to teach about 9/11. Here are some of the topics we think are worth exploring—we’ll have another blog tomorrow outlining lessons we recommend.  

  • Teach about Islam to dispel stereotypes and help children understand that not all Muslims are terrorists—and not all terrorists are Muslim.
  • Explore the nature of terrorism with high school students. There is no one definition of the word terrorism, even in the international community. Present students with two or three cases of terrorism (e.g. 9/11, the recent attacks in Norway and Irish Republican Army attacks during “the troubles”) and challenge them to find the commonalities.
  • Examine the ways in which stressful events put pressure on civil liberties and rights. During wartime, societies often reduce liberties—think of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, the imposition of martial law during the Civil War and passage of the Patriot Act in 2001—to gain security. Help students see that these changes need not be permanent, mainly because dissenters rise up to restrictions on liberty.
  • Develop historical thinking by exploring the consequences of 9/11. Help students see that the attacks themselves and the response to them have led to, among other things, two wars, a shift in national priorities, mistrust of Muslims and renewed arguments about the limits of religious tolerance.

Most important, let’s keep in mind the role education plays in healing. We teach to help children recognize and overcome the hatreds, challenges and fear that—along with the ash and sorrow—became embedded in our lives ten years ago.

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance. 


Teaching tolerance can be a

Submitted by dan sheehan on 24 August 2011 - 10:46am.

Teaching tolerance can be a life saving activity, especially when we include and sucesfully teach indivduals whose words and actions indicate an utter lack of tolerance and a firm belief that they have the right, perhaps even duty, to put an end to opinions, faiths, lifestyles,countries, cultures and individual lives whom they regard as in opposition to the will of nature, science, history or the divinity whose commands they claim to obey.

We are able to identify Jews, Christians, Moslems and Hindus among those who have taught and practiced intolerance based on their interpretaions of what a true believer in their faiths must believe and do.

In lessons which relate to past and continuing teachings and crimes of intolerant, violent Moslems, in addition to the tips offered, I include an effort to teach tolerance to such individuals and to those whom they are teaching.

To ignore our Moslem students, and through them their families,is to deny that the need and possibility to teach them exist. We know that it is dangerous to ignore them: Moslem Americans from my neighborhood, graduates of Flushing High School,have been among those who were taught intolerance and acted on their beliefs.

Our respect for the freedom to learn allows us to share facts with our students and to be with them as they discuss, "What questions does this raise, What stories does this tell?".

If we avoid facts because of a particular characteristic of the people involved-we show disrespect for ourselves as educators, our students as learners, and all humans as fellow makers of our world, for better or for worse.


Hi, I was surprised to see

Submitted by Eileen on 23 August 2011 - 4:58pm.

I was surprised to see the Irish Republican Army equated with a lone nut job who set out to kill children he though might grow up to be liberals. Or with extremists who flew planes into towers. Even with the peace accords in place in the north of Ireland and the slow attrition of the British power in the north you are still talking about a group of people who had much more in common with the American colonists revolutionary army fighting that same British army. Or better yet, latter-day Sioux fending off the 7th Cavalry. To the British Army, George Washington would have been the biggest "terrorist" of them all. Usually Teaching Tolerance has a clearer grasp of all the various stakeholders in a particular history (and who gets to write it) than that.

Thank you,

Eileen, I included the IRA

Submitted by Maureen Costello on 24 August 2011 - 4:17pm.

I included the IRA quite deliberately in what is a compare-and-contrast exercise. Although there is no universal definition of terrorism, most definitions include the idea that terrorism includes three essential elements: 1) an intention to create fear; 2) motivated by a religious, ideological or political goal; and 3)targeting civilian, non-combatant populations. You suggest that the IRA should be excluded, presumably because of their goals. (Full disclosure: as my Irish name suggests, these goals had my support).
So the question comes to that third part of the definition -- the targeting of civilian populations for killing. Washington's army used unconventional and guerilla tactics, but they targeted the British Army and the Hessions, not non-combatant civilians. And as far as terrorism during the so-called Indian Wars, I think we should probably be looking at the actions of the U.S. Cavalry rather closely too.
The point of this exercise was to isolate the actions that we call terrorism, and to understand it better. It was intended to help teach that very important lesson: we can't have two sets of rules: one for the people we oppose and the other for the people we like.

West Wing put together a

Submitted by Chris on 23 August 2011 - 2:28pm.

West Wing put together a stand alone show right after 9/11 that is not part of their recurring story. Season 3, Disc 1. It is the season opener, available on Netflx or for purchase and I am sure other places. I show it every year. While having no direct focus on the attacks per se, it addresses racism towards Muslims, civil liberties, "why terrorism." Since the plot has a group of multi-cultural high school students in lock down in the White House, it is particularly interesting to students and invites insightful conversations.

Thanks for the tip, Chris.

Submitted by Liz Fox on 23 August 2011 - 3:13pm.

Thanks for the tip, Chris. I'll have to check it out.