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Discussing 9/11 With Your Students

Ideas for discussing September 11th attacks with elementary and middle school students.

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You can may recall exactly what you were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in junior high at the time, and distinctly remember turning on the radio and hearing the announcers talk in great despair about an attack on America. I ran to my parent’s bedroom and told them this confusing news. My parents rushed to turn the TV on, just in time to watch the second plane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. School was hardly academic that day; we listened to news updates, and the teachers consoled students in distress that had loved ones with unknown whereabouts. I vividly remember on our drive home that afternoon, individuals standing on an overpass proudly waving American flags. Cars honked in acknowledgment. My family gathered around the television that evening to listen to President Bush address the nation. From that point on, everywhere I looked, it seemed that American flags flew proudly along nearly every street. There was a new sense of unity in our nation in the midst of tragedy. It’s hard to believe that it has been almost 2 decades since the September 11th attacks.

While this day may still feel fresh and raw for us, it's important to remember that most of our students were not yet born when the attacks occurred. While it may seem most appropriate to teach this event on the anniversary of the attacks, this is not necessary. Don’t feel like if you missed the date, you will have to just wait until next year. You can talk about historical events at any point during the year.

I've compiled some ideas and suggestions for conducting a classroom discussion around the topic of September 11, 2001 broken down by grade level.

Grades K-2

As we discuss 9/11 with our youngsters, we can put the focus on the fact that we do not choose the events that happen in our world. However, we do get to choose how we respond, and sometimes tragic events are what bring out the best in people. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, volunteers from around the world helped in the aftermath. People provided comfort to families who lost loved ones.

While this event was a tragic day in history, we only want to discuss and show our students images to the least extent possible that is necessary for them to understand the event. While we do not want to water down or make history into a glorified story, we do need to be mindful as we share tough subjects.

You might also consider weaving in history about the twin towers prior to 9/11. Looking at the tightrope artist, Phillipe Petit who walked between the two towers in 1974 is a great way to discuss how the skyline in Manhattan looked prior to 2001. The book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein is a great read aloud.

Picture Books:

Picture books about September 11th for elementary.

Grades 3-4

In the intermediate grades, I believe that keeping the focus centered on the heroism and role of the first responders is important. We can weave in the importance of honoring those who served, and can look at ways to honor those within our own community. Giving our students the opportunity to write cards to first responders within our own community, is a great actionable step. Again, this does not have to be done only during the month of September.

Looking at history from different perspectives is also important. The book Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman is not about an individual, but about a New York Fire Department fireboat that was retired and designated for scrap metal. After the 9/11 attacks, a team resurrected the boat and brought her back into service, making her once again one of the best fireboats on the river. This book is a great way to view 9/11 from a different angle, and is perfect for building discussion.

Another great resource for teachers and parents was created by Don Brown called America is Under Attack: September 11 2001: The Day the Towers Fell. This book includes personal stories that represent different perspectives and pays homage to the heroism of the first responders. Humanizing this event and building empathy is important, and this is a helpful tool. This book is not one that I would read in its entirety to students. You might select a few pages from the book to share.

Books & References:

September 11th books for upper elementary

Grades 5-8

While one piece of understanding history is learning the facts, dates, and details of an event, it is important to dive deeper than memorization learning. The 9/11 Memorial & Museum offers a free webinar entitled, Anniversary in the Schools which is an excellent way to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 in your classroom. This webinar includes exclusive interviews with reporters, Pentagon survivors, and first responders, to name a few.

September 11th reading passage and comprehension questions

You could also couple the webinar with this close reading passage which dives into the events of the day, the role of the first responders, differences between 9/11 and the Pearl Harbor attacks, the response of the nation and more. After reading the passage and answering questions about the text, I also have my students analyze artistic works, and photographs using their schema.

September 11th writing prompts

There are several chapter books that are great for learning and diving deeper into a discussion about 9/11, but I would like to highlight just one that I have specifically used in my classroom, which is the book, Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This book is perfect for classroom discussion not only about 9/11, but about socio-economic status, diversity, and community. This book is a great fit for our students who were not alive during the 9/11 attacks, and do not quite understand how this event impacts their own lives today. This book causes one to reflect on how challenges and diversity can bring a country together.

Towers Falling Book Study for upper elementary

This book would serve as a great class read aloud. I personally use this book for literature circles (or book clubs). I chunk the book into four sections, with each section including reading response questions.

Below, I've listed books appropriate for middle school, which could be a great addition to your classroom library.

September 11th chapter books

Book for Middle School


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