How to Teach 9/11 to Those Too Young to Remember it?

The World Trade Center right after the attacks. New Jersey's 9/11 curriculum attempts to help students understand the emotional and cultural significance of the events in a way that is sensitive and digestible, yet engaging and constructive. Flickr/slagheap

As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 approaches, educators are grappling with an increasingly common question: How do you teach the events of 9/11 to children who may have been too young to remember them?

How do you express the profound meaning of the word “terrorism” in a constructive context to a generation of children who’ve heard the word bandied about their whole lives, but are just beginning to engage with the word and the world on a political level?

This summer, many New Jersey educators are using a new set of guidelines for teaching K-12 students about the events of 9/11.

The curriculum, created by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, the Liberty Science Center and Families of September 11, is called “Learning from the Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism and 9/11 in the Classroom.”

While the classes aren’t required in New Jersey public schools, the curriculum is available on the New Jersey Department of Education website, and the DOE is encouraging teachers to incorporate it into their lessons.

Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, explained that lessons learned from Holocaust education over the last half-century provided good insight into how 9/11 could become a valuable teaching instrument. According to Winkler, the idea of a bully provides a good entrance point for children to access the enormity of an event like the Holocaust or 9/11.

“The curriculum goes from bullying on the playground to terrorism worldwide,” said Winkler, who added that the curriculum “should not teach hatred,” and is not about “the idea of ‘those people, ‘them.'”

St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan. As part of New Jersey's 9/11 curriculum, students are asked to think critically about artifacts recovered from the chapel, which was used as a recovery center after 9/11. Flickr/goldberg

Rather than necessarily dealing directly with the stuff of media headlines, the curriculum works around the major themes of 9/11 and global terrorism by teaching children to engage critically with the world around them.

The teaching unit “Remembrance and the Creation of Memory” includes an activity in which students study images of artifacts collected from St. Paul’s Chapel, a key recovery site following the attacks and later a memorial to the deceased.

The students are asked to address the following questions in an essay: “Describe what you see. Does this artifact help us remember something or someone? Why do you think this artifact was used to honor or remember 9/11?”

In another unit, this one geared toward high school students, students are asked to share information about their identities, write down which groups they feel they belong to and discuss the following:

• How do the group’s characteristics as described by a group member differ from the characteristics described by outsiders?

• Will every member of that group have these characteristics?

• How does the group identity affect the way you see yourself? How does it affect the way others see you?

• What are the potential benefits of making these assumptions about what group members would be like? What are the potential pitfalls?

In the video below, NJToday interviews Winkler about the new curriculum.


NJToday speaks with Paul Winkler about the new 9/11 curriculum he helped create. The 113-page teaching manual helps students relate their daily experiences to the larger questions and significance of global terrorism and the attacks on the World Trade Center.

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