Teaching and Remembering 9/11 Twenty Years Later

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  • Never Forget: Teaching 9/11 twenty years later.
  • This post shares ideas on how to include September 11th in your classroom through a trauma-informed lens.

Remembering September 11, 2001

Almost everyone I grew up with has a story related to the attacks of September 11th. Some of the kids I went to school with or grew up with lost relatives, neighbors, and friends. As a Long Island native, September 11th has a unique set of emotions for those of us from New York. Everyone knows someone or knows someone who knows someone. The slogan “Never Forget” is one we take to heart where I’m from; ditto for the phrase “All gave some, but some gave all,” referring to the first responders who answered the call to help rescue efforts that day. Everyone helped, but some sacrificed and helped by giving their life.

A timeline of that morning

At 8:46 am, American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center in New York City. 

9:03 am: American Airlines Flight 175 hits the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. 

9:37 am: A third plane crashes into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. 

9:59 am: In New York City, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapses. 

10:03 am: United Airlines Flight 93 crashes in Shanksville, a town in western Pennsylvania in a fourth hijacking. 

10:28 am: The North Tower of the World Trade Center collapses. 

And in my own personal story, sometime around 5 or 6 pm that evening: a call from my mom, telling us she was OK as I sat with my grandparents at their house. The news played recycled footage of the towers falling in my peripheral vision.

September 11th highlights the importance of honoring our different but shared truths about what America is and means. Twenty years later and into the future, it’s important that we never forget. Click To Tweet

An Era Defined by a Single Day

The aftermath of these few hours and thousands of lost lives is still felt in our nation and all over our world today. Following the attacks, President George W. Bush made a speech with the aim of uniting our nation. In it he said: 

“Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist attacks…Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve…America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace…None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Talking and teaching about 9/11 is inextricably linked to education. When President Bush first heard the news of the Towers falling, he was reading to a classroom of elementary school students in Sarasota, Florida. Teachers watched newsreels of the towers being hit on a loop in faculty rooms and break rooms across America. It was a moment that teachers had to process in real-time, while figuring out how to talk to students about it in the days that followed. Teachers, after 9/11, were charged with ensuring the calm of their students and educating them about the events as they were happening. My own teacher, Mrs. Schiraldi, would incorporate it into her own instruction in the days and months that followed. 

From Current Event to History

When the 9/11 terror attacks happened, I was in second grade. This day connects deeply to my family who are first responders and who were in the city where these events happened, as they were happening. It is a day that, for me, is still sometimes difficult to think and write about. But as a humanities teacher, I feel it is important that students understand the stories and significance of this history and how it impacted our nation. 

The students I teach today were born nearly a decade after these events, so for them, it is history. They live the events of 9/11 through images, stories, and secondhand accounts.

Each year in school, I was always uncomfortable with the memorialization of 9/11 in my classes. Watching video footage of the buildings on fire, the smoke billowing into the skyline, and even close-ups of office workers jumping from buildings was jarring, and triggering. When I became an educator, I thought, there has to be a better way to teach this event, especially for students who live in close generational and geographical proximity to those events. 

Remembering as We Teach

As the years pass, the number of students who recall 9/11 is shrinking. The last class of students who were born in or before 2001 graduated in 2019. 

Still, it matters that we teach the events of 9/11 in a way that is trauma-informed but still preserves their significance. Because these are real lives that ended, real families that are grieving, and real stories that continue to be told and remembered. 

This is where trauma-informed instructional practice (TIIP) comes in. In their article “Threading the Needle,” three educators discuss the importance of understanding where students are emotionally and strongly accounting for their lived experiences when we design content and curriculum. 

There are so many vivid images from the events of 9/11 that evoke deep and distressing emotions even from adults who encounter them. There are audio recordings of final goodbyes and emergency dispatcher conversations that are equal parts haunting and moving. Throughout the years, my own teachers played these recordings in our classes. I remember feeling sick as the audio cut out, signaling that the towers had fallen on the person in the phone call. I could only imagine how many other students were affected, especially given our proximity to New York City and the number of families connected to the NYPD, FDNY, and emergency services living on Long Island. As a teacher, this proximity strengthens the fact that educators must know our audiences and facilitate appropriate, helpful, and critical discussions.

Trauma-Informed Applications in the Teaching of 9/11

We can empower students to learn about solemn history without exposing them to more violence through our curriculum. In their article “Threading the Needle,” Gibbs and Papoi conclude that: 

“We are living in an ever more violent and complicated world. Children are seeing and experiencing violence at an unprecedented rate as television, social media, and other outlets bring the world to them, even if they themselves are not experiencing trauma.” Today’s students did not experience September 11th, 2001 as a current event, but they live in an era defined by the actions, decisions, and policies birthed after that day. 

Students endure different kinds of violence throughout their lives: in their media consumption, their exposure to injustice, and beyond. It is educators’ responsibility to help shape students’ experiences. Eliminate curriculum violence and help students grow beyond painful moments of the past.

Teaching about painful history doesn’t mean avoiding hard truths. Lessons about 9/11/01 are lessons on compassion, reverence, respect, and storytelling. Gibbs and Papoi state, “Trauma-informed instructional practices ought to provide guidance about how to teach critically while doing no harm to students or their community. However, history must be taught honestly, or the trauma from the past will continue to haunt students as they move into their future” (2020).

Teaching 9/11: Lessons about our humanity, not just our history

For many survivors, even the memorialization of September 11th does not consider trauma-informed practices. The 9/11 Memorial in New York City is a moving and sorrowful experience. While it is human to capture moments in photographs, this is the final resting place of thousands of people. Today, our students are used to selfies and photographing every experience they have. Discussing the impact of memory and when it’s appropriate to take in an experience as opposed to documenting it may be an important lesson for students. The 9/11 Memorial, by virtue of its existence, offers a lesson in being present.

Talking about September 11th may provoke anxiety for Muslim students and students of Middle Eastern descent. After 9/11, the lives of Muslim students or even just those perceived as Muslim became spaces of tension and violence. Attitudes of Islamophobia were, in some cases, codified into policy and implicit curriculum. This tension of “unity, for who?” makes the voices of Muslim students integral to conversations about September 11th.

Teaching 9/11: Protecting Muslim Students is a trauma-informed, socially just practice

President Bush aimed to ameliorate some of the xenophobic rhetoric across America, acknowledging that Islam is inherently a religion of peace. Even with this rhetoric in the balance, new iterations like The Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act solidified a culture of fear and their controversy have shaped the different ways we experience America and tested both our fear and commitment to unity for all

As teachers, it is our job to be intentional about creating unity for all in our class spaces. Our students must witness and feel that our message of unity, acceptance, and commitment to their diversity is unconditional. With this in mind, it matters that the voices of Muslim students and people are heard and their culture is celebrated, understood, and respected.

Educators can ensure that unity as a message and as a behavior makes space for all. I have used texts like Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Once Upon an Eid to shed light on the experiences of Muslim students and make them feel a part of our shared space

Teaching 9/11: Starting with Story

In the memorial hall is a quotation by Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” More poetically, it sums up the phrase New Yorkers live and breathe: Never Forget. 

Surrounding that quotation are 2,983 mosaic squares in different shades of blue. Each one represents one victim of the two attacks at the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. The mosaic itself is titled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on that September Morning.”

If you ask any New Yorker to describe the city before the towers fell, most begin with the sky. This memorial, whether you visit it in person, virtually, or in photographs, can be a great and safe place for students to start. 

The power of story is a way to explore narrative. Storytelling starts with shared humanity and shared memory, even if our experience of that memory differs. 

Teaching and discussing 9/11 looks different in every classroom. This is especially true when you stretch those lessons from New York City to Florida or to Minnesota or Oregon. It’s an experience that unites us as Americans, but the day the towers fell was different for all of us.

Stories to Help Students Learn about 9/11

In the past, I worked in a classroom with a teacher who addressed the events of September 11th with a text set featuring John McCain’s “The Mike Christian Story,” excerpts from The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi, and even “A Love Letter to NYC” by the Beastie Boys. Other texts that students could access include A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, stories from Another World is Possible by Jee Kim, and Ground Zero by Alan Gratz. 

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Uniting Us in a Shared Vision of Hope

Whether we are in New York or on the West Coast, it is possible to teach this history effectively. The history of September 11th, 2001 includes all Americans: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, white, brown, Black, New Yorker, or Californian. 

September 11th highlights the importance of honoring our different but shared truths about what America is and means. Twenty years later and into the future, it’s important that we never forget.


Friedman, J. (n.d.). A Look at the Museum’s Memorial Hall | National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Www.911memorial.org. Retrieved September 4, 2021, from https://www.911memorial.org/connect/blog/look-museums-memorial-hall

Gibbs, B., & Papoi, K. (2020). Threading the Needle: On Balancing Trauma and Critical Teaching. Occasional Paper Series, 2020(43). https://educate.bankstreet.edu/occasional-paper-series/vol2020/iss43/10/

Islamophobia in the Classroom and the Impact of Discrimination on Muslim Students. (2019). In Center on American-Islamic Relations. https://ca.cair.com/sfba/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2019/09/Anti-Bully-Report_2019.pdf

Mirk, S., Omar El Akkad, Alba, G., Katarzyna Babis, Beguez, A., Chahwan, T., Nomi Kane, Khouri, O., Kane Lynch, Maki Naro, Newlevant, H., Nguyen, J., Saunders, C., & Abu Zubaydah. (2020). Guantanamo voices : true accounts from the world’s most infamous prison. Abrams Comicarts.

Nast, P. (2020). Teaching About 9/11. Www.nea.org; National Education Association. https://www.nea.org/professional-excellence/student-engagement/tools-tips/teaching-about-911

September 11, 2001 Timeline – Flight 93 National Memorial. (n.d.). ; National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/flni/learn/historyculture/september-11-2001-timeline.htm

Van Woerkom, M. (2017). Helping Students Counter Anti-Muslim Bias | Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. Www.morningsidecenter.org. https://www.morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/helping-students-counter-anti-muslim-bias


About Cait O’Connor

Cait O’Connor is a fourth-year public school English/ESOL educator in New York, committed to social justice and equity in education and beyond.