Teaching Terror: As 9/11 Moves From Memory to History, Schools Adapt

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lindsay Tallman remembers walking the halls as a senior at Old Rochester Regional High School on Sept. 11, 2001, when she first heard about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Now, in her fourth year as a teacher at the same school, she shows her ninth-grade history class footage from 9/11.

"Surprisingly, many of my students have actually never seen extended footage from the day. It's usually very emotional for them to watch for the first time," she said.

Tallman's freshman students were preschoolers on 9/11. In the 10 years since, the events of that day have gone from breaking news, to current events, to recent memory, to recent history. During that time, teachers have faced the difficult task of educating their students about the subject, weighing what is appropriate for children to know at different ages as the event becomes increasingly distant.

"In previous years, I have had students who had some secondhand experience with 9/11, either through listening to stories told by relatives or due to actually losing a family member or friend of the family," said Robyn Hennigan, a fourth-grade teacher at Minot Forest Elementary School in Wareham.

"Knowing that this year's students were not even born when this tragedy struck, I actually feel more comfortable teaching about 9/11 from a historical perspective."

Margaret McCormick, a second-grade teacher at Holy Family Holy Name School in New Bedford, said she does not plan to discuss many details of the attacks with her young students, so as not to frighten them.

"We will be doing a patriotic art project and writing thank-you letters to our protectors ? police and firefighters in our city," McCormick said.

In fact, teachers of younger students sometimes use discussions about 9/11 as a springboard for lessons about local heroes.

"The writing activity I have planned stresses heroism and humanitarianism rather than magnifying the horror of that day," Hennigan said. Her students will write an essay about a personal hero inspired by the heroes of Sept. 11, she said.

Amy Hartley-Matteson, Principal of LeRoy L. Wood School in Fairhaven, said she will meet with the school adjustment counselor and the Wood School Leadership Team to discuss the best way to present 9/11 to the elementary school children, though she added that many of the topics have been discussed before.

"As a school community, we have been tackling topics such as patriotism, appreciating our veterans, conflict resolution and loss and grief, long before this anniversary of 9/11," she said.

"Children make connections to what they know and have experienced, so we use authentic opportunities to model for our students what we want them to know or understand. Last year when a student's father served for 12 months in Afghanistan we used that experience ... to teach about the armed forces, the sacrifices service men and women and their families make and have made for our country."

Read more