This year marks the 21st anniversary of 9-11. On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 individuals lost their lives in a series of deliberate attacks on American soil. Two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, causing its two towers to collapse. The Pentagon in Arlington, VA also had a plane fly into it, and a fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field. The last aircraft was likely headed to the White House or the Capitol. First responders also died helping those injured individuals on 9-11. As educators, we must include in our classroom activities to honor & remember 9-11 each year.
As educators, this is a significant day. No matter what subject you teach, you can talk about September 11 in the classroom. When teaching middle school history to students I always told them, “History is ugly, but that’s why we need to learn it.” We owe it to those who lost their lives on that horrendous day.
Here are 5 activities you can complete with your students to learn about September 11 for your upper elementary to middle school students.
1. Read a Book to Honor and Remember 9-11
Read a book. One of the best ways to teach students about the events of September 11 in an age-appropriate way that does not scare them is through the familiarity of a picture book. Here are 3 books we recommend on the topic:
The following two books tell of varying perspectives from unlikely entities that became tremendous sanctuaries of safety.
The Little Chapel that Stood by A B Curtiss
Beautifully illustrated book tells of the historic chapel less than 100 yards from the Twin Towers that miraculously survived on 9-11. Firemen hung their shoes on the fence and raced to help the people in the towers: Oh what gallant men did we lose who never came back to get their shoes. The story of terror overcome by courage and bravery that teaches us no one is too small to make a difference.
Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman
The John J. Harvey fireboat was the largest, fastest, shiniest fireboat of its time, but by 1995, the city didn’t need old fireboats anymore. So the Harvey retired until a group of friends decided to save it from the scrap heap. Then, one sunny September day in 2001, something so horrible happened that the whole world shook. And a call came from the fire department, asking if the Harvey could battle the roaring flames. In this inspiring true story, Maira Kalman brings a New York City icon to life and proves that old heroes never die.
Branches of Hope: The 9/11 Survivor Tree by Ann Magee
In this moving tribute to a city and its people, a wordless story of a young child accompanies the tree’s history. As the tree heals, the girl grows into an adult, and by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, she has become a firefighter like her first-responder uncle. A life-affirming introduction to how 9/11 affected the United States and how we recovered together.
Video from National Geographic is a great accompaniment to book:
The following video from National Geographic is a great accompaniment to the book to show how the burned pear tree was recovered at a Bronx nursery and how it was brought back to life and replanted in its original spot. The survivor tree’s story is so deeply symbolic of the recovery of America and its people from the trauma of 9-11.
2. Interviews: Secondary and Primary Sources
Your students’ parents remember exactly where they were when 9-11 occurred. We are teaching some of the last generations of kids, depending on the age of your students, whose parents were alive on 9-11.
I remember I was in my eighth grade taking an algebra test on September 11, 2001, when the first tower was struck. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, until about an hour later when we were sent to the auditorium instead of our elective class. We were told what happened and then they played a movie. Looking back, I’m sure the teachers just couldn’t go on that day and didn’t know what to do. Kids were picked up one by one as parents weren’t sure what was happening to America that day either.
I like to teach students about the difference between secondary and primary sources. Interviewing someone who was alive on 9-11 is a primary source. Then, they as students, become the secondary source of that event. I love to give the homework assignment of interviewing a family member about what they remember of 9-11 and where they were. What were they feeling? What was their perspective? Students write down the answers to their interview and during the course of it, they learn even more through discussion with their interviewee. They come back to class and share their interviews. It’s fascinating to hear the stories. The students are always so curious and enthralled when they hear their peers’ interview stories.
3. Virtual Tour of 9-11 Memorial and Museum
I love the story of redemption that the 9-11 Memorial and Museum symbolize. Built where the original World Trade Center was located, the 9-11 Memorial and Museum strives to educate others about that tragic date and memorialize those lives that were lost.
Description from Website: Located at the World Trade Center in New York City, the 9-11 Memorial Museum tells the story of 9-11 through media, narratives, and a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts, presenting visitors with personal stories of loss, recovery, and hope.
If you don’t live near NYC and don’t have the opportunity to take students on a field trip to see it, try the virtual tour:
The virtual tour is in a video fashion where you follow along with other students as they explore. You can pick where to explore next in the museum, listen to various stories told by tour guides, and explore the building itself with symbolic exhibitions that show artifacts of 9-11 and that commemorate the lives lost.
The website itself is a treasure trove of valuable resources. The link below lists countless primary source accounts of survivors, children of NYPD and firefighters who lost their lives, and even grown adults who were children in the elementary school down the street from the World Trade Center. Each video comes with a set of discussion questions, as well.
4. Oral History of Courage of First Responders/Writing Letters
Mr. Rogers said it best, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
Discussing with students about the first responders who jumped to action, risking their own lives, to help others is a beautiful lesson of courage. It teaches students how we should put others before ourselves. It teaches them selflessness. The following website contains the oral histories of survivors of 9-11 as well as first responder accounts.
After listening to the oral histories of first responders or their family members, it is a great springboard for discussion of how our police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers, and so many other first responders are so courageous and deserve our gratefulness. Having students write a thank-you note to your local police or fire departments, hospitals, etc. to show their gratefulness for their courage to our community is a wonderful way to remember lives lost and to express gratitude. By expressing thankfulness, students can truly understand the bravery of those who chose these careers.
If you would like a template or graphic organizer for a letter campaign, please grab our Veterans Day Letter/Card Writing Project. You can easily use these to write letters now to first responders or write letters to veterans, as well. In addition, we also give you an address to mail them to. Plus, if you mail them now, most likely they will reach our veterans this November, just in time for Veterans Day.
5. Write a Poem about 9-11 & Illustrate the Poem
Writing a poem about 9-11 is a way for students to connect to the event and express their feelings.
The Library of Congress’ website has a collection of poems about 9/11 that were written within a year of this historical event.
Reading some of the poems aloud can give students inspiration for their own. (Read the poems ahead of time to choose more age-appropriate ones depending on the grade-level of your students.)
Students can then write a poem of their own about what they learned and illustrate it.
If you are looking for even more ways to educate your students on how to honor and remember 9-11, Tunnel to Towers has developed an inspiring curriculum for you to share with your students. Their non-fiction, 9-11 educational resources are based on first-person accounts for grades K-12. For their resources, please click below.
We encourage you to take some time to educate your students about 9-11 in an age-appropriate way. By reading a picture book, performing interviews, exploring various websites and oral histories, and writing poetry, students are bound to remember the historical significance of the day and teach their children about it too. Please include these activities to honor & remember 9-11 this year. Their units are divided for K-2, 3-5,