How Do We Teach Children About September 11th?

Each September brings a flurry of excitement and anxiety for parents, teachers, and students. Beginning in September 2002 another factor was added to the list: how and what to teach about 9/11. For some teachers, the question is whether to teach about 9/11 at all.  

There are many reasons for not wanting to address 9/11 during the first week of school.  As the school year begins, teachers don’t know their students or their histories.  In the immediate years following 9/11 students who had lost family and friends were entering classrooms. Now students are less likely to have been directly affected, but it still may be a sensitive part of their family’s history.  Even students who do not have a direct connection could find a discussion of a terrorist attack on their city or country anxiety–provoking.  

But, in order to never forget, our children need to be taught about 9/11. The right time may vary for families, making the choice for teachers of earlier grades especially difficult.  For my children we inadvertently introduced the events through a picture book, Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey.  My husband read it aloud to my twins, not knowing what it was about, resulting in a choked-up conclusion. While not a planned conversation, it was a meaningful way to share the tragic events of the day, as well as our personal connections to 9/11.

As a sixth-grade social studies teacher, I feel it is necessary to address 9/11 in my classroom.  Sixth-grade students are at an age with a level of access to information that makes it important to address historical and current events factually.  In the first few years after 9/11 I struggled to find the best approach. I struggled with the choice of how to begin and where to end when addressing a topic that isn’t strictly part of my curriculum.  Ultimately, the same book that we repeatedly read to our twin sons became the best way to honor 9/11 in my classroom. As a sixth-grade teacher, I chose to tailor the lesson to the theme of heroism, looking for the examples of heroism in the story.

By eighth grade, September 11, 2001 is listed in the New York City Social Studies Scope and Sequence. At this point students are expected to study not only 9/11, but the events surrounding it.  For those of us teaching grades that don’t include 9/11 as part of the curriculum, take a moment to remember.  Fireboat is just one example of a picture book about the events of September 11th.  Others include September Roses and 14 Cows for America. You might also consider The Man Who Walked Between the Towers as a way to share the Twin Towers as part of New York’s history, without directly addressing the terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum website offers suggestions and lesson plans based on grade level. Additionally, they are offering a virtual program to help honor the anniversary. If you have younger students, and aren’t ready to introduce this tragic event, you can still  mark the day with an activity dedicated to heroes.

There are tragedies every day. There are multitudes of current events that present teachable moments.  We can’t possibly address them all. But as New Yorkers, this is our history, and our responsibility to make sure that it is never forgotten.

This is a guest post by Christine Sugrue, who has taught middle school social studies in the New York City Public Schools since 1999.  Her passion is using field trips to bring history to life.  Additionally, she has a website,, that features ways to help students engage with cultural institutions around New York City.

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