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20 Years Later: Teaching 9/11 In Schools

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — It has been 20 years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Current high school students were not alive then. But for many teachers, the day is more than just a page in a textbook, it is a vivid memory.

"They Know Without Knowing"

A lot has changed since 9/11, and that includes the way teachers talk about the events in the classroom.

"A year after, two years after, I had a PowerPoint presentation," said Scott Symons, a social studies teacher in the Windsor Central School District. "And I just showed pictures of that day. We showed people covered in dust and asbestos, we showed the planes hitting. Some of those kids would have some tears in their eyes."

But Symons said the discussion has changed since those first few years after the disaster.

"For me, it's gone from a bigger discussion to, you know, we may spend 10 to 15 minutes on it. More if the kids are really interested in talking about it," Symons said. "But otherwise, if the kids really aren't, then because of the curriculum crunch, I'm going to move on."

New York's social studies curriculum requires teachers to address the attacks, and their aftermath, starting in eighth grade.

Owego Apalachin Middle School teachers Jessica Warner and Samantha Cramer said even their sixth grade students often come to the classroom already understanding the gravitas of 9/11.

"When you talk about it or when you show them a video about it, the room is quiet," Warner said. "They know, without knowing, the respect and the importance of this event without actually living through it."

Many teachers said the most involved classroom discussions today usually revolve around more recent events because students are trying to process the news first hand.

In the last two years, there has been a lot of news to understand - like the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and the Jan. 6 attack on the nation's Capitol.

Alan Singer is a former social studies teacher and now teaches education at Hofstra University on Long Island.

"For kids, there's two time epochs. There is BM and AM: before me and after me," Singer said. "And that history, and real life — history is just what starts when I was born. So for me, it starts in 1950."

For kids today, it starts after 9/11.

Not Just Words In A Textbook

Singer said with big historical moments, like 9/11, it is especially important for students to form their own understanding based on evidence from multiple points of view. He added it can be particularly effective if teachers are able to draw on their personal experience as a primary source in the classroom.

Brian McKinley teaches social studies at Vestal High School. Before he entered the classroom, McKinley worked as a traffic reporter in New York City.

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, McKinley was flying above Manhattan in a traffic helicopter. 

"I heard my pilot yelling, which he never did, or none would ever do," McKinley said. "And I looked at him and he pointed and I saw a cloud of smoke coming out of the North Tower."

McKinley said he tells that story every school year.

"I want my students to know that history is not just a bunch of words in the textbook," McKinley said. "I want them to know that it's personal for so many of us."

Bridging History And News

Sean Swider teaches social studies at the Owego Free Academy. He said his goal is to help students form their own connection to historical events, including 9/11.

Swider said showing students artifacts, such as  wallets found at Ground Zero, can help them realize the human toll of the day. But he said he also wants students to realize the policies that came after the attacks still affect them, 20 years later. 

"We dig into things like the Patriot Act and our response to it," Swider said. "Would you be okay if someone randomly looked in your trunk versus randomly looked on your phone?"

This year, Swider said he expects students will also have questions about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the biggest employers in Owego is Lockheed Martin, which has a lot of military contracts.

Many teachers said respect is especially vital in the classroom when addressing current events.

"I try to remind students - 'hey, you don't know what everyone in the room is thinking right now, you can't read their thoughts,'" Swider said.

Swider said learning to talk about issues like 9/11 serves as a reminder that social studies is more than just history. It is how to be a good citizen.