Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

What Does September 11 Stand For and How Should We Acknowledge it?

Deeper ways for students to learn about 9/11 that go beyond acknowledging it just one day.

September 7, 2011

"December 7, 1941 -- a day that will live in infamy." So said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the attack on Pearl Harbor. What about Sept. 11, 2001? I propose we call this, "A day leading to a national month of inspiration and gratitude."

On both of these days, enemies of the U.S. attacked us because they were opposed to our way of life. They did not believe in freedom and equal rights as we do, and found fault with what they believed America stands for. They did so without warning and many people were killed and hurt. In 1941, the attack was on a naval base, and it was sailors and soldiers and members of the Air Corps, as well as doctors and nurses, who mainly came to the aid of those wounded and killed.

On September 11, when the attack first took place, it was our firefighters and our police officers, Port Authority personnel and D. C. emergency services workers, who were the first responders. But when the twin towers collapsed in Lower Manhattan, that group expanded to include just about everyone- taxi drivers and teachers, accountants and advertising executives, mothers, and maintenance personnel -- everyone in and near lower Manhattan came to help, to help find the wounded, to help find bodies or any reminders of who was there and who was lost. And we eventually learned that the brave passengers of Flight 93 were also first responders.

Recognizing All Those Who Helped

These events inspired acts of service and dedication, and acts of caring that continue today. They remind us of how important it is to think of others as we think of ourselves, and even more so, that when we all do this, we are protected because so many are looking after each us.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 should be the time we create an enduring national focus that starts 9/11 each year. It will be a time of inspiration, to learn about and be inspired by the lives of those who were innocently killed, those who died helping others, and those who survived. It will be a time to be thankful for those who care about us every day, those who help educate us, and protect us from harm, danger, and disease. It will be a time to make sure all of our students understand the social network that surrounds us all and the people who are part of them. It will be a time when educators and parents take time to guide students to reach out to learn more about their local helpers, their local government, and their local service providers.

We need to be inspired by the lives of all these individuals and their willingness to sacrifice, seen perhaps no more clearly than the brave passengers of Flight 93 that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania but was unable to harm its intended target.

Connecting Service to School Life

Finally, the month of inspiration and gratitude should be a time we ask in our schools, "What do we stand for? What are we striving for, as a school and as individuals?" When we recite the pledge of allegiance to the flag, what does it REALLY mean when we say, "indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL"? Is our school indivisible? Is there liberty and justice for all students, equal justice regardless of subgroup? Let 9/11 be a source of social-emotional and character development (SECD) for our schools, staff and students.

That said, there are some important instructional considerations that have come to my attention in past years about 9/11-related lessons:

Contact parents to find out if children in your classroom/school were affected by 9/11 directly or indirectly. The "lessons" feel very different to those involved than they do to those learning about a historic event that might feel almost as remote as Dec. 7, 1941. Let parents know what you plan to do and seek their support, if not direct involvement.

Remember that children who are in the eighth, ninth, and tenth grades today were likely to be in preschool and kindergarten on September 11, 2001. Most students are going to need a basic introduction, which would include the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the story of Flight 93. But that introduction and history must be in the service of a larger pedagogic purpose; that is, there are many ways to present the events and it is important to be pedagogically clear about why and how one will do so.

In the Classroom

Don't rush. Since 9/11 is on a Sunday, it can be recalled and taught about any time during the following week. Preparation and emotional considerations are paramount, not doing something close to the calendar day of the event.

Use video and photo materials, but be sure to preview and be highly selective. There are outstanding materials and resources but the instructional purpose will dictate their appropriateness, as will the presence of students who have been directly affected. For example, while some students who may never have had a lesson about the event might benefit from seeing pictures of the Pentagon site after the crash, students whose parents or other relatives were in that building or on that flight most assuredly will not benefit, at least not without prior permission and/or preparation.

Above all, materials that reflect stories of individual people or families are usually most compelling to students and serve to generate a deeper interest than materials that are more focused on the "events" and circumstances in a more abstract or depersonalized way.

In an article I wrote published in September 4, 2002 in Education Week, I gave a 9/11 "report card" one year after the tragedy. What I saw was missed opportunity to emphasize a collaborative and respectful culture of schools, promote SECD, and inspire students through project-based and service learning. This still has not happened, and it is not yet too late.

But 9/11's 10th anniversary is likely to be the high water mark in commemorations. As the August 31, 2011 Education Week notes, there is an abundance of materials about 9/11; many states have provided guidelines, documents, and policies about what to teach regarding, but the reality is that 9/11 cannot be understood in a "day" any more than someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. can be understood in a day. Topics that states emphasize such as terrorism (Michigan, New Jersey), radical Islamic fundamentalism (Texas, Massachusetts), domestic terrorism (Louisiana, Oklahoma), and analyzing the causes of the War on Terror and the constitutionality of the Patriot Act (Washington) require extensive background and developmental understanding.

It's highly challenging for educators coming back to school for a new school year to do justice to 9/11 on "a day." So I propose we commemorate 9/11 in an social-emotional learning (SEL) way by making it the start of a month of inspiration and gratitude, and then make serious efforts to integrate 9/11 into social studies/history/civics curricula so that this powerful event can be used to create a developmental trajectory for specific learning outcomes that will build over time to create important insights for our students.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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