I started teaching the year after 9/11. In the first few years of teaching I took part in commemoration ceremonies each year. Then those ceremonies became moments of silence. Eventually the moments of silence became classroom lessons. Now, in many instances, it is left up to teachers how 9/11 is taught or if it is taught. As the years have passed the emphasis on teaching this difficult topic has diminished. This is the first year high school freshman will learn about an event they were not alive for. This, combined with the complex and sometimes controversial nature of 9/11, make teaching 9/11 challenging for classroom teachers.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet with the team designing the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. At the time the museum was behind schedule. Every exhibition and design decision was being vetted through focus groups (survivors, families, religious groups). I walked away with sense of how layered and complicated building a museum of remembrance can be. Teaching 9/11 is just as layered and complicated. I know some educators who feel they can’t do justice to teaching this event and others who would prefer not to remember it themselves so they don’t cover it at all in their classrooms. Then there’s another group of educators who shy away from discussion of politics, terrorism, and religion.
As a history educator, I am concerned about the loss of the memory surrounding September 11 for our youngest students. I am concerned about the context of this event and its impact on the last decade being relegated to a paragraph in a textbook or a one hour CNN special. 9/11 is etched in our memories, but it will never be a personal memory for many of our students. We need to give our students the opportunity to interact with difficult content, ask tough questions, and be part of the history making process with oral histories projects and interviews. September 11 continues to teach us lessons and it’s up to use to put these lessons into context for our students.