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Developing 9/11 Lessons That Are Informative, Sensitive

For the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, The Families of September 11, Inc., released guidelines for lessons about the attacks that are informative and sensitive to the needs of children who may have lost relatives or friends. Included: Suggestions for lesson plans and topics.

About 5,000 children lost a parent in the September 11 attacks of 2001, and thousands more lost a relative or close family friend. Children throughout the country also remain affected by this traumatic turning point in U.S. history, and often it falls on classroom teachers to reassure them and help them understand the events.

Families of September 11, Inc., a national advocacy organization that supports families and children, released guidelines for teaching about the attacks and suggestions for developing lesson plans as the nation marks the anniversary of the attacks.

Education World talked with Nikki Stern, executive director of Families of September 11, about ways teachers can develop meaningful, thoughtful, sensitive lessons about the events of September 11.

Nikki Stern

Education World: What is the best way to ensure students remain aware of the impact of the September 11 events without frightening them?

Nikki Stern: First of all, lesson plans for all age groups should be developed with the assistance of a child trauma specialist. Second, it is possible to focus on the unprecedented coming together and on the heroism of that day and the days afterwards as a way of emphasizing the magnitude of the event, the magnitude of the response. In addition, in determining how to strike the balance between remembrance and unnecessary traumatization, seek out the involvement of, and input from, parents. For example, certain images that inspire terror or horror -- such as images of death and destruction -- and there are images from Hiroshima to Vietnam to Iraq that also fall into that category -- may be, and may remain, inappropriate for young children.

EW: What advice do you have for teachers who have students who lost a family member or friend in the attacks to help them through this difficult period, particularly since teachers are just getting to know their students?

Stern: Talk with the parents! I cannot emphasize that point enough. Set up parent-teacher conferences, communicate with them, and encourage parents to become partners in their children's well-being in the schools. Families of September 11, Inc., has created a package of tools for parents and caregivers of children affected by September 11 on our Web site's companion Web page, Children of September 11. This first-in-a series includes tips on meeting with new teachers for the first time. We also have articles from specialists on whose expertise we rely that can be helpful for teachers dealing with the clinical implications of images and other relevant information.

EW: How do you suggest schools mark the anniversary of September 11?

We are supporters of programs like One Day's Pay, which recommends that the day be turned over to acts of service. It would be wonderful if, instead of declaring September 11 a national holiday -- hence, a day off school -- if teachers recognized the acts of compassion and heroism that also marked that day; for example, they could organize field trips that enable students to engage in positive activities to help others -- both in honor of the lives lost and in honor of the humanity exhibited by so many.


"September 11 is sufficiently 'close' in chronological terms so that the events of the day become a catalyst for children to think, to question, and to examine."
--- Nikki Stern, executive director, Families of September 11

EW: How should school programs marking the anniversary in New York City and Washington, D.C., be different from those in other parts of the country?

Stern: I don't know how they should be different in the schools in those areas. Obviously, there are more school children in the D.C. and New York tri-state regions who were directly affected by 9/11 -- they lost a loved one or witnessed the attacks -- than in other parts of the country. But our national membership tells us that across the country, there is a concern that the schools aren't thinking about how the events may have affected the children in their communities or even what 9/11 means. I would hate to think everyone had to experience such a calamity personally before it could have meaning in the classroom.

EW: What kinds of questions should teachers at different grade levels expect from students?

Stern: I am most emphatically not an expert but obviously, the older the child, the more sophisticated the questions will be. The youngest may ask, "Why did they attack us?" or "Why do they hate us?" -- questions that really provide an opportunity for carefully constructed approaches that don't frighten the children but also don't seek out "rote" answers. Older children and teens may couch their questions as statements -- but again, in the hands of a creative instructor, a dialogue can be initiated that examines a broader, big-picture framework and encourages critical thinking.

EW: Why do you think it is important for schools to have curricula dealing specifically with the September 11 events?

Stern: September 11, 2001, is a seminal event in our history. While we may have previously understood that we are all connected and live in a "global" society, the consequences of that connection were brought home for the first time on September 11, 2001. In particular, September 11 is sufficiently "close" in chronological terms so that the events of the day become a catalyst for children to think, to question, and to examine. Teachers can use the events as a means of promoting dialogue.

This e-interview with Nikki Stern is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2017 Education World


Originally published 09/03/2004
Last updated 09/11/2017