Help Students Get Perspective on 9/11

As the country approaches the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Teaching Tolerance bloggers have written about their insights and experiences in the classroom as a result of the attacks. We offer these for your reflection and adoption. 

Editor’s Note: As the country approaches the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Teaching Tolerance bloggers have written about their insights and experiences in the classroom as a result of the attacks. We offer these for your reflection and adoption.

I have snapshots in my mind of a 16-year-old, curly haired girl doodling in her notebook, desperately trying to avoid being called on in Spanish class.  Her biology teacher bursts through the door, interrupting her stupor with the words “a plane just crashed into one of the Twin Towers.” Today, that girl is a 26-year-old teacher standing in front of a room full of students who do not have such snapshots. None of them were beyond the age of 3 when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. In a few more years, I will face students who will only know 9/11 as a historical event that happened before they were born.

These past and present snapshots remind me it is essential that middle school educators take into account that while our mental snapshots of 9/11 are our own, for our students these snapshots have been handed down to them in an album created by others. Yet despite the fact that these snapshots were not taken by our students, we must realize they are affecting the conclusions students draw about 9/11. We must encourage our students to develop multiple perspectives about 9/11 and draw their own conclusions.

I use a method called “triangulation.” This is simply the process of teaching students there are multiple views of any historical event. Triangulation requires students to consider a minimum of three viewpoints before drawing a conclusion. Students should be encouraged to include their own view as a starting point in this process and then seek out at least two other sources. It is key to include the perspectives of primary sources from contrasting backgrounds. For 9/11, it is imperative these sources include first responders, Muslims, military families and victims.

This process takes careful thought. Consider the following viewpoints of 9/11:

  • How did 9/11 affect the community I teach in? What have the elders in the community taught younger students about 9/11?
  • What values are emphasized in our community? It is important to consider the cultural contexts embedded there.
  • What resources did elementary teachers in my school district use to talk about 9/11 with students? Consider contacting them to become more familiar with these.

It’s important to avoid discrediting what students have already learned. The point of triangulation is not to make someone feel they need to defend their views. Rather it is to encourage both expanding and reconsidering what we already think and feel. Also, be aware of your own cultural capital. Teachers have a cultural capital in school because they have experienced multiple levels of education and are tenured in the field. Always remember this can lead students and parents to see you as an expert. When triangulating, point out to students that you are not an expert. Join the process with them.

Many teachers encourage students to consider multiple perspectives by using shorter pieces of reading. Pieces of fiction or nonfiction may offer unique perspectives of 9/11. One fictional example is Naomi Shihab Nye’s short story Hum, which focuses on a young boy who moved from Palestine to Texas right before 9/11. The story emphasizes the boy’s struggles to deal with the blame others place on him simply because he is from the Middle East.

Similarly, you can use photographs or newspaper articles. Ask students to bring materials their family has saved from the 9/11 events or allow them to draw a sketch of their perspective. Next, find additional photos showing different perspectives. Have the students triangulate the perspectives presented in the new visuals with their original visual.

Remember, triangulation is not an imposition of one person’s views onto another person. Rather, it is meant to empower the researcher. It gives value to the researcher’s viewpoint while encouraging them to explore the thoughts of others. Don’t discredit your student’s thoughts. Instead help them broaden their perspectives and update the conclusions they have been drawing. When we draw a triangle on the board we create new places for new thoughts. But when we leave our markers capped, student perspectives remain restricted. They are left with a few dusty snapshots they didn’t take.

Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.