Teaching 9/11 to young students

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Updated  Marie Ernst

Last Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Using the hashtag #Neverforget, people all around the world have been sharing their thoughts, condolences and memories on social media. And while it is amazing to see how social media is giving people impacted by the tragedy a voice, it is also worth noting that an increasingly large number of users of networks like Twitter are too young to actually have witnessed or even remember the attacks themselves.

With 1 in 5 Americans alive today having been born after September 11th, the majority of present students' knowledge stems entirely from information they got on television or online. Taking this into account, it is no wonder many young people in America and the world find it difficult emotionally connecting with the events of 2001 in the same way their parents do. Without having experienced life before the attacks themselves, many regard the uncertainty that defines living in the post 9/11 world as perfectly normal - from rigid airport security to constant news about terrorist attacks.

Seeing as many children and youngsters find it hard fully understanding the severe impact September 11th has had on the world, it is now more important than ever to make sure they receive quality education on this crucial subject.

But how do you teach the emotional and social intricacies of an event as traumatic and unprecedented as 9/11 to someone who has not lived through it?

The 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, reading 'We shall never forget'.
The 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, reading 'We shall never forget'.

Surprisingly, there is no nationwide mandate to teach kids about it at all, and only 21 US states have so far incorporated lessons about the attacks into the school curriculum. Some officials even go as far as to say that it is entirely up to parents to educate their children about September 11th and the topic should therefore stay outside the classroom. But even among the states that do choose to teach it, the kind of information children receive and the methods employed by teachers vary widely.

While there are differences in the ways teachers approach the subject, one common trend over the last years has been to start teaching 9/11 to increasingly younger students. Since there are hardly any up-to-date textbooks on the topic, most schools rely heavily on online resources. However, what teachers make of the information provided is entirely up to them and the school's curriculum.

Up until a few years ago, a fairly high number of teachers used to focus solely on discussing historic facts, geopolitical developments and how living conditions are different now to how they were in the pre-9/11 world. Others have used the events as a starting point for debates on major topics such as identity, social change and xenophobia.

A more recent approach can be seen in a school of thought that stresses the importance of teaching empathy over specific content and encouraging students to think critically about controversial issues, which aligns with a set of standards given by the so-called College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework. Following these guidelines, teachers try to engage students more actively, for instance by letting them verbalize their feelings regarding the attacks or even asking them to develop their own ideas on how society as a whole can be improved upon.

An increasing number of schools have also started shifting focus away from pure fact telling in order to give students a more personal perspective on September 11th. By having teachers share their own stories and anecdotes and informing students about the bravery and sacrifice of policemen and firefighters, schools are trying to make sure that the focal point of those lessons and the message students will take away from it is the victory of compassion, unity and hope over hate and destruction.

Approaches like these show a generation of people too young to be emotionally tied to 9/11 how the global support following the attacks united Americans and brought the world closer together. Instead of giving terrorism a voice, schools are providing students with an emotional and social toolkit to tackle the all too present instability and uncertainty of the world they will inherit.

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