Remembering Sept. 11: Teaching tragedy to a new generation

  • Lt. Col. Brian Fernandes speaks to a crowd of about 100 students in the Bow High School auditorium Friday . GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Lt. Col. Brian Fernandes of the New Hampshire National Guard, who served in the war in Afghanistan, speaks to a crowd of about 100 students in the Bow High School auditorium Friday morning. Fernandes told students about the moment he heard about the Sept. 11 attacks while at a Georgia army base, and realized he was going to war. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/10/2021 6:20:57 PM

When Weare Middle School social studies teacher Holly Wilson teaches her seventh grade class about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in class on Monday, she plans to use a Google Slide presentation, video footage, articles and discussion questions, but also a personal story.

Wilson, who has been teaching lessons on 9/11 in Weare social studies classes for the past six years, experienced a personal tragedy in 2001 when her college friend Mark, a professional hockey player who worked in the financial industry on Wall Street, died when the One World Trade Center collapsed. He had been on the 100th floor. Wilson says she usually tells that story toward the end of her lesson, after students have learned the facts about the attacks and discussed the outcomes.

“When you have a personal connection, you can bring in stories you may not see in a history book,” Wilson said. “You can talk about that last phone call and what was said. I tell them personally what I went through, what my friend went through, so it is very impactful for them.”

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 stand out vividly in the minds of many adults, who remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Twenty years after the event, the challenge for teachers is conveying the feeling of the time to current middle and high school students, who were born after 2001.

Wilson, who usually begins the lesson by asking her middle schoolers how much they already know about the event, says the students have “bits and pieces,” but she always has to clarify the facts.

“I think it’s like teaching any other part of history they haven’t been alive for, which is most of it,” Wilson said. “I try to bring in scenes that they can understand. Why is there hatred? Why do people do this to each other? What are the causes of things like this?”

Bow High School marked the day Friday by holding a moment of silence via the intercom at 8:45 a.m., the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center. The high school also brought in a guest speaker, Lt. Col. Brian Fernandes of the New Hampshire National Guard, who served in the war in Afghanistan. Speaking to a crowd of about 100 students in the Bow High School auditorium Friday morning, Fernandes recalled the moment he first heard about the Sept. 11 attacks while an infantryman at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“By that night I was getting phone calls from friends saying ‘it’s the Taliban’ and they said ‘we’re going to war,’” Fernandes told the students. “My whole plan in life the day before, of ‘I’m just going to do my four years and get out and live my life,’ has now changed to ‘I’m going to war to avenge what had just happened in New York City.’ ”

Kelsie Eckert is a Professor of Social Studies Education at Plymouth State University who teaches college students studying to be teachers. Eckert says one thing middle and high school teachers can do to give students an idea of the feeling of the time is through music from the early 2000s, songs like “Believe” by Yellowcard and “Where Is the Love” by the Black Eyed Peas that reference the attack and the subsequent wars.

Eckert says middle and high school teachers should have compelling, researchable questions they should ask students to think about, like ‘what is the enduring impact of 9/11?’ and ‘is the U.S. more or less vulnerable today?’ as well as ideas they can debate, like whether 9/11 was a justifiable basis for the invasion of Iraq.

“There should be room for all of those answers to come to the table in however the teacher structures it” said Eckert. “We have to not shy away from teaching about controversial things, I think that comes down to how you facilitate this conversation.”

Eckert, who was a student at Kearsarge High School in 2001, says 9/11 is the reason she became a social studies teacher. When her high school went into lockdown over fear of more attacks, her social studies teacher turned on the television and the class watched the second plane crash live.

“I feel very fortunate that I was in a class with a person who specialized in history and international relations,” Eckert said. “He was calm and he listened to our fears but he also said things like, ‘we don’t know what’s going on, but here is some historic context for why we might be under attack right now.’ I decided right then and there that I wanted to learn more about the world, about cultures, about different societies.”

Alison Buchholz, an associate professor of elementary education at Plymouth State University, says that while elementary-age children are too young to learn about the details and the politics of the event, they can engage with the topic as early as kindergarten through conversations about community and first responders.

“Perhaps a teacher of young children might look at the civics component of that and talk to children about, when something happens that is unexpected or perhaps scary, who are the community members that you reach out to and who know how to keep us safe?” Buchholz said. “Talk about the roles of those people so you are not skipping the idea of 9/11, but I don’t believe they need to go into the details and the fear and scary kinds of things.”

Buchholz, who was an education professor in 2001, was observing a student teacher in a second grade classroom in Arizona when they heard the attacks had happened.

“She looked at me and was like, ‘oh my God, what do I do? How do I do this?’ ” Buchholz said. “It wasn’t like we had time to prepare lessons for this. We made sure we stuck with the truth, the facts as we knew them, making sure that students weren’t getting misinformation, but not allowing it to take over the day.”

Although years have passed, revisiting the event in class isn’t always easy for teachers like Wilson, who experienced a personal tragedy

“It is hard. I get teary-eyed every year I teach this,” Wilson said. “I look at my curriculum and I know it’s coming and I feel the exhaustion already, because Mike was my good friend.”

Wilson plans to end Monday’s lesson the way she always does – with a list of community service ideas do on Sept. 11 to help make the world a better place, such as delivering cookies to a local fire or police station, or donating to a local charity shop, food bank or animal shelter.

“Because I teach civics, that’s a great segue back to my curriculum, saying ‘this is what we’re all about, this is what we’re going to learn about this year,’ ” Wilson said. “How to give back to our community and how to make the world a better place.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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