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When Students Have No Memory of September 11

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Memory is an interesting thing. At school we try so hard to get students to remember things, but some memories are indelibly imprinted without any effort at all. For example, I have a vivid memory of where I was and what I was doing on September 11, 2001. Everyone that I have asked also has a vivid memory of this tragic event. They can remember the other people in the room, and their reactions. They can remember colors, surroundings, and even sounds, as if they were using a video recording.

Most importantly, we all still feel the weight of anguish and frustration from those cowardly acts of terrorism, as well as an outpouring of sympathy for those men, women and children who found themselves directly in harms way.

Other memories of the history I experienced are sometime poignant and other times fuzzy. For example, in 1968, I remember my family watching the television hoping my brother would not be drafted to go to Vietnam (he wasn't selected). I have vague memories of watching Neil Armstrong jump off the ladder of the Eagle Lander in 1969. In 1972, when I was in sixth grade and 12 years old, I recall the Apollo 16 lunar rover traipsing around the moon -- oh, and the American flag that sticks out as if the wind were blowing. Interestingly enough, I don't remember much about the Watergate scandal that lasted until I was 14, but I remember the gas shortages of the seventies because I had to mow lawns and needed to stand in line to get gas for the mower. Into adulthood, my memories are clearer than my youth, such as Reagan's victory over the cold war.

But none of those memories are as powerfully etched in my memory as the vision of the airplane crashing into the towers. The emotion of that memory has engraved it permanently in our minds and hearts.

I was three when John F. Kennedy died, and I don't remember it at all. I have heard people talk about it, how bad it was, and what it meant to the nation. I read about it in history class. I saw videos about it. I even learned about the ongoing controversies, but in reality, it held no more emotional sway than did Elvis' death. Thinking about this, it occurs to me that we have a generation of students who were three years old when the Twin Towers were destroyed. That means that they are 13 years old now.

For my youngest children, ages 14 and 17, 9/11 was a terrorist attack that other people talk about. Intellectually, they know what it is, but they do not feel what it is. They do not feel the shock and associated anger that lives and breathes in Americans who were old enough to understand and feel in 2001. They do not feel the same agony and sympathy for the victims and the fallen heroes that the older generation feels. It is not a vivid memory for them because they did not experience it.

Researchers Geoffrey Caine and Renate N. Caine explain in the their book, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, that the brain has a memory system called "locale" that combines where we are, emotions, and the situation to form permanent memories -- none of which have to be "memorized". In another blog, I mention that memorization is a powerful tool for memory, but in an era of high-pressure testing, it has become the default for learning. Isn't that what happened with Sputnik and the space race? (It was before my time.)

As we honor the heroes and mourn the victims of September 11, the memories of their lives cause us to pause and reflect on the blessings and challenges of living in a free nation. Because of this event, our lives and the direction of our futures have been altered.

As teachers we have an obligation to help the new generations who may have intellectual knowledge of this tragedy to begin to feel the emotions along with the facts. Here's a website that might help. Dewey had it right when he proposed that education must be experienced, and not just lectured. Just as the experience of 9/11 gave us indelible memories, "experienced" learning can do the same.

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Mary Anne Lock's picture

Very nice post! I had the good furtune of being with Geoffrey and Renate Caine in a professional development setting several years ago. Their learning event samples, which puposefully activate prior knowledge through allowing the learner to attach enotions to rigorous content and concepts are quite powerful! I often wonder what keeps educators from using the information our brain researchers have given us. For that matter, we really haven't given proper due to Dewey!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Mary Anne:

Thanks for the complement and especially thank you for reading the whole article. I know one reason that educators don't use brain research- they don't know about it. I was a teacher for 10 years and I did not know about it, though I would have been very interested to have learned about it. I do remember the right brain, left brain craze that went on. Whew! Glad that is over. Back to the whole brain learning. Dewey had a lot of things right, and he lived in the 20's. I would have loved to have met the Caines, I have several questions to ask them.

Thanks for your response.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Chris Clarkson's picture
Chris Clarkson
Father of one in year four

Nice post.
I do think it's a little different in today's media circus in how events are covered.
September the 11th was an awful day for the US and for many other countries around the world. But unlike the Kennedy assassination (I was only 1 year old) which my parents remember vividly (Where they were and the time), there were fewer TV channels, no cable or satellite. So the media frenzy, although huge (so much so that I know a lot about the event through many sources of information) was not as widely covered as 9/11.
But of course, you are right. For many, it was not experiential and therefore more akin to false memory syndrome where people believe they were there when something happened.
I vividly remember recounting an incident I was involved in to my son, when My parents stepped in and informed me that I wasn't actually at the scene. But in my mind I had built up a mental picture.
The images are so powerful from the terrible events of 9/11 that they linger in the mind, and will continue to exercise the same powerful emotions for years to come in many people, old and young. But this is like any event throughout history in that, for younger people, the emotions are somewhat subdued and don't carry the same gravity.
I know that when my son is old enough to truly understand, I shall sit him down and take him through that day.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Hi all-

I just found out that Discovery Education is offering live virtual events about 9/11.

About the events:

Discovery Education will host four events in cities closely affected by September 11th featuring a preview of RISING: REBUILDING GROUND ZERO, followed by a live panel discussion with members of the community who were personally affected by September 11th, and an interactive Q & A session. Each of the following events will be available to your classrooms via webcast at no cost.


Margaret's picture
Third grade teacher Port Jervis, NY

As a first year teacher in 2001, it was very easy to discuss the events of 911 in the following years. I personally am married to a firefighter whose father was there throughout the day and was one of the firefighters pictured carrying out Father Michael Judge. He asked me recently what was in our social studies books if anything yet. In fourth grade there was a section that spoke about 911. I told him, that the past few years have been a little difficult speaking with the students because their experience was limited. This year we talked about what they knew and what happened on that day. I focused on the patriot aspect, saying how sometimes tragic events can bring people together and it's important to be there for each other not only in times of need.

Clayton Guy's picture
Clayton Guy
12th Grade, Economics, Government, History

I am been showing a video of 9-11 on every anniversay. It was only this year, on the 10th anniversary were there any other observations. I am usually the only teacher that mentions the day, talks about the day and uses a video. I have a great video that covers the days events, has people give information and students see the actual events as they occur. Eventually 9-11 will be like the Moon landing, JFK, Pearl Harbor and our students will not have been alive. I think it is an important day in our history and one to keep working on. Students thank me for showing the video and discussing the days events. We use blogs and the video and journaling so everyone can express their opinion. Thank you for sharing your blog.

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