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How To Teach 9/11 To The Next Generation Of Students

“To them, it’s history, just like Pearl Harbor”

For many Americans, the shock, horror, and terror of September 11 feels fresh. And for years, it’s been “taught as a current event, meaning teachers broach the topic late in the school year, and if they fall behind on their lesson sequence, sometimes they don't get to it,” according to US News & World Report.


But for the class of 2020—today’s high school freshmen, all of them born after 9/11—the attacks are history. Yet in the last 15 years, no national historical curriculum has been developed on the topic. There are no standards, no rubrics, no formal lesson plans developed for teachers to rely on.

As with many historical events, educators have struggled not with how to teach the facts of 9/11, but rather the emotions surrounding it, as well as the intricate causes and effects of an event that impacted every American life—and in many ways still does.

Chris Causey, a middle school teacher from Tennessee, told USA Today via email:

“To them, it’s history, just like Pearl Harbor… I personally cannot think of any other event in American history that has had more of an impact on how everyday Americans live their life. It has had a profound impact on my life; therefore, I believe it to be my duty as an educator to never stop teaching the shock, horror, sadness and utter disbelief of that day.”

Causey is just one of many educators working to formulate exemplary teaching models.

In Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed, school districts have been considering how to implement respectful, honest 9/11 teachings in an age-appropriate way since 2001. Between kindegarten and the third grade, students participate in 9/11 commemorations and school-wide moments of silence.

Starting in the fourth grade, students within the Abington, Pennsylvania school district learn from a curriculum inspired by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, located at the World Trade Center site in New York City. By high school, students are introduced to more complicated concepts, including religious extremism, Afghani culture, and tolerance.

At Stratford High School in Tennessee, older students learn about the efforts of New York’s brave firefighters by conducting mock rescues of their own. In New Jersey, USA Today reports that some elementary school teachers expose their third graders to K9 rescue teams while twelfth graders learn about prisoner interrogation methods.

Colleen Tambuscio, a teacher at New Milford High School in New Jersey, is looking for more than one-off attempts at 9/11 lessons, instead arguing for comprehensive reform. In an interview with Asbury Park Press, Tambuscio said it well:

“It takes a talented teacher who is really dedicated and committed to students to make this work well. This is not a math lesson on percents and we’re going to do it and you’re going to have a test. This requires a different level of treatment. You teach history not to just recite facts, but to give it some kind of meaning.”

Though Tambuscio helped formulate the 9/11 curriculum currently taught in New Jersey schools, there’s still much work to be done in her home state and in the rest of the country. Luckily, committed educators like her are coming together to find a way to approach the events of 9/11 with sensitivity in the classroom.

Image via Prameet Kumar