What Are We Teaching When We Teach the “History” of September 11, 2001?

Posted by Mary Hendra on August 19, 2013

Tracy Garrison-Feinberg wrote this post. Tracy is Senior Program Associate in Facing History’s New York office and was at her Brooklyn home on the morning of September 11, 2001. Tracy Garrison-Feinberg wrote this post. Tracy is Senior Program Associate in Facing History’s New York office and was at her Brooklyn home on the morning of September 11, 2001.

It’s been 12 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001 shook Manhattan, the United States, and the larger global community. Despite the passage of time, important questions still remain – questions of memory, identity, and how to mark this tragic event that killed more than 3,000 people in and around the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 over Shanksville, Pennsylvania:

  • Why did this happen?
  • How much of what happened should we, as educators, share with students?
  • How young is too young to talk about this history?
  • What about students who weren’t alive in 2001? How do you help them make sense of this history?
  • What issues should we discuss, and to what detail?
  • Is it too soon to be wrestling with this history?
  • How do we share different perspectives of this history, from those who survived the attacks, those who lost loved ones, first responders, people involved with the recovery effort, and global perspectives?
  • What is the role of memory in the history of September 11? How have we begun to memorialize the people and the events, and what questions has this raised?

For the past several years, Facing History has partnered with the 9/11 Tribute Center in New York City to explore some of these questions, as well as resources that can help educators prepare students to have difficult conversations about this violent chapter in our recent history. As a co-facilitator of our annual 9/11 educator workshop, “Understanding our Post 9/11 World,” I have heard from teachers who bring this history into their classroom in many different and powerful ways. Here are a few examples:

  • One teacher incorporates a unit from Brown University’s The Choices Program into his social studies courses at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice. This teacher uses the teaching strategies and readings from “Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy” to look at the history and evolution of terrorism, as well as to explore the choices that political leaders made in the “post-9/11 world.” How might Facing History teachers use newspaper articles, news clips, and political cartoons to help students understand how media can shape our understanding of history?
  • At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, a history teacher incorporates a unit on the September 11 attacks into his “History of New York” course. Structuring the unit this way allows the teacher to ground his students in the history of Lower Manhattan and explore what came before the World Trade Center, including the “Little Syria” neighborhood that was home to a large Arab immigrant population in the early 20th century. He and his students make connections between recent issues, like the controversy over building the Park 51 Islamic Cultural Center, to the history of the neighborhood where mosques and Arab Christian churches existed a century before the attacks. During this unit, he also shares the personal history of Stuyvesant High School on September 11, 2001, when students and faculty had to evacuate and were displaced for months following the attacks. How might exploring the history of the area around lower Manhattan help your students study this history while addressing issues of immigration, identity, and belonging?
  • For many in the northeast, and elsewhere, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks often falls near the beginning of school, before teachers have really gotten to know their students. This can be difficult – how can teachers address the challenge of participating in an anniversary event at their school, and provide enough historical context, even as they and their students are first learning about each other? This summer, educators at the “Understanding our Post 9/11 World” workshop brainstormed ways to address this: Introduce historical context for the attacks so that students and teachers can participate in an anniversary commemoration, bring in an eyewitness to share their story, contract with students early about having discussions on difficult topics, plan a longer unit that can explore the history more in-depth later in the year. What suggestions would you add?

These are just a few examples of the ways teachers have taken this history and helped students make sense of the questions that remain, the struggles that still exist, and their own place within it.

Do you teach about 9/11 in your classroom? If so, how do you incorporate this conversation into your curricula? If not, why not? Does our own location matter when we teach about 9/11? We want to hear from you. Comment below and tell us about the questions your students have when discussing this moment and how you help address them.

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Further Resources:

At Facing History, we have resources and teaching strategies that can help you explore issues of identity and memory, and study how communities around the world and throughout history have responded to and recovered from acts of violence and atrocity:

Additional resources can be found through the 9/11 Tribute Center and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum:

Topics: A View from the Classroom

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