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Student Books Capture Feelings About 9/11

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Ongoing class discussions about the terrorist attacks on September 11 made teachers realize that students needed more outlets for their thoughts and feelings. Many educators turned to writing and art projects that culminated in published collections of students' work, providing the children and others with a permanent emotional record of 9/11 and the days that followed. Included: Links to four student-written books.

From Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001, drawn by Chad, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
"People are killed ...
with no goodbye
When planes fly over quiet skies."
From Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11.*

Teachers and administrators around the United States quickly learned last year that not only did children have strong feelings about the September 11 terrorist attacks but they also needed a way to express them.

So educators turned to the outlets children know best: drawing and writing. Some teachers took the activity a step further, compiling drawings, letters, poems, and essays about the tragedies into books that either they published on their own or sent to a publisher.

The results are permanent and moving records of students' responses to the attacks, from those closest to Ground Zero to those in other parts of the country and abroad who felt the emotional reverberations.

"People say they can remember where they were when something happened, but they can't remember their feelings," said Matthew Schmidt, a history teacher at Handy Middle School in Bay City, Michigan. Schmidt and English teacher Susan Lewandowski compiled artwork and writings by an eighth-grade team into a 146-page book Reflections: The Tragedy of September 11, 2001 published by School Success Press, a partnership between Education World and iUniverse. "Now they have something they can reflect on 20 or 30 years from now. It was really a release valve. Some got teary-eyed writing in class."


From Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001, drawn by Angelina, Queens,
New York
Frequently, the art and written work evolved from class discussions. New York City students, many of whom were directly affected by the attacks, began pouring out their feelings on paper soon after September 11.

Among those noting the depth of feeling in students' work was Shelley Harwayne, superintendent of New York City School District 2, which includes an area near the World Trade Center. Four District 2 schools were evacuated September 11.

"I mentioned to the former chancellor, Harold Levy, how powerful the children's responses were, both the art and writing," Harwayne told Education World. "He suggested I start compiling them."

The result was Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001, published by Heinemann. Harwayne had published professional-development books through Heinemann in the past and approached staff there about publishing a book of student work. The company as a whole and staff members donated time and resources to print the book. "It's a little out of our field, but it seemed like a great way to give back a little," said Jennifer Andrews, marketing coordinator for Heinemann.

The book is divided into six sections, the events of 9/11, heroes, children's attempts to understand the attacks, letters from children from other states and countries, messages of hope for the future, and "We Will Never Forget." Just fewer than 200 children contributed to the book.

The children's words and pictures reflect the horror of the day and the sorrow and anxiety that followed. "I rushed to the window to see smoke coming from the World Trade Center. I saw smoke coming from the other tower. There was also an explosion coming from my heart when I saw the ball of fire," one student wrote.*

There is also talk of the future:

"New Yorkers are great, and we will rebuild,
And the empty gray space soon one day will be filled."*


From Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001, drawn by Wendy, New York,
New York
Besides serving as an outlet for students' feelings, the book also is a way of saluting the city's heroes and those who supported New Yorkers.

Messages to Ground Zero is dedicated to those who lost their lives and the city's teachers, administrators, and volunteers who "guaranteed that 1.1 million children got home safely that day," Harwayne said.

She also called it a "thank-you note" to all of those who wrote to schoolchildren. Among those is Chad, 10, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. A drawing he sent reflects a child's desire for a happy ending to the events that unfolded on television: Superman grips a plane in each fist to prevent them from crashing into the World Trade Center. (See first image in this story.) Chad included a letter with his drawing that says, in part: "I am real sorry for what happened to the World Trade Centre. I hope you haven't lost any parents or relatives. I hope this letter cheers you up because I am sending a picture with this letter."

City children also will see ongoing benefits from the book. Proceeds go to the Fund for the Public Schools, NYC. The fund provides support for children who lost a parent in the World Trade Center or who evacuated their schools, in the form of academic assistance, counseling, and participation in after-school activities.


Other teachers published books on their own and saw the benefits the project had on their students. Another New York City educator, Khaleelah Shabazz, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 3K, the Bedford Village School in Brooklyn, published material from her own school in Disaster Through the Eyes of a Child: Urban Expressions on the World Trade Center Attack, published by School Success Press, a partnership between Education World an iUniverse.

"The project began as a result of a class discussion with my kindergarten students, who wanted to share their feelings," Shabazz told Education World. "I then decided to extend the discussion by reaching out to former students on different grade levels. I asked my colleagues to allow their students to illustrate and write about their feelings about September 11. The students were anxious to share their illustrations and writings with others."

At a school publishing party, according to Shabazz, one student said, "I'm glad I had my work published because maybe it will help someone else."

"This project helped the students deal with the events of September 11 by having a vehicle to express their feelings," Shabazz added. "The artwork of children sends a powerful message."


As residents of New York City and Washington, D.C., began to emerge from shock, students in other parts of the United States were coping with their own anxiety and wondering what they could do to help those affected by the tragedy.

"Many were afraid," said Susan Lewandowski an English teacher at Handy Middle School in Bay City, Michigan. "They went home [September 11] and locked the doors." But they also wanted to know what they could do to help.

Students on an eighth grade team began by writing letters and poems to firefighters and rescue workers involved in the recovery efforts, she said. Then her colleague, Schmidt, suggested publishing the students' work.

Students wrote essays responding to three questions: What are your feelings about September 11? What do you think will happen next? Where do you think the anthrax scare will lead?

"I was surprised some of the kids were so emotional and sympathetic," Lewandowski told Education World. "They wanted to know what they could do to help; they [also] were expressing thoughts and feelings and looking for outlets."


In Sunnyvale (Texas) School, fifth-grade English and science teacher Wendy Wooters also used writing prompts to help students express their feelings. Some wrote about how they felt their world had changed since September 11, and some wrote about their heroes. Students' poems and illustrations were compiled into Oh, We'll Never Forget: Sunnyvale Fifth Grade's Recollections of Sept. 11, published by School Success Press, a partnership between Education World an iUniverse.

"America has a heavy heart, because a lot of families have been torn apart," wrote one student.

Wooters also noticed a change in the students' definition of hero. "If I had asked them who their heroes were before September 11, they would have named movie stars, sports figures, or singers," she told Education World. "After September 11, they named firefighters, police officers, nurses, emergency services workers, and those in the military."


Some of the books will be used in lessons and programs marking the first anniversary of the attacks. In New York City, excerpts from Messages to Ground Zero will be read. Shabazz plans to use her school's book, Disaster Through the Eyes Of a Child, as the centerpiece for conversations with the student authors and artists. "During this forum, I hope to have the students understand tolerance, diversity, and respect for all races," Shabazz told Education World. "I want them to understand that because a few people made a bad decision to cause 9/11, we must not blame others."

Students also must look to the future. Shabazz wants students to discuss ways to help themselves and others, by brainstorming the one most important thing they could do to help make their communities better places in the aftermath of the attacks and constructive ways to handle their own anxiety and fear.

"We tend to focus on adults and provide services for adults on how to cope," Shabazz said. "However, we must remember that young children have these same anxieties and fears."

The children's books provided good perspective for the adults around them, added Harwayne. "This was a good reminder that kids are not miniature adults," she said. "They see the world differently."

*Excerpts from Messages to Ground Zero: Children Respond to September 11, 2001, collected by Shelley Harwayne with the New York City Board of Education. Copyright © 2002 New York City Board of Education. Reprinted by permission of Heinemann, Portsmouth, N.H.