How to teach today's students about 9/11

No child at school today was alive when 9/11 happened. What challenge does that present to teachers trying to explain such a significant event?
1st December 2020, 1:00pm
Grainne Hallahan


How to teach today's students about 9/11

In the Olympic Park in Stratford, London, there stands a sculpture. It is tucked away, next to the Aquatic Centre. If you were to approach it from a distance, and not see its signage, you would think it was perhaps a depiction of a parent walking with a small child.

As you come closer, the battered steel dazzles in the sunlight, its polished surface belying the horror behind the story of how it came to be here. Because, as the small discrete plaque that sits below the sculpture will tell you, this steel comes from the remains of the World Trade Center.

9/11. Most of us could share where we were when we heard the news (lower sixth, art history lesson, TV wheeled in so we could watch the news) and describe the effect of watching something like that unfold.

But the children in our classrooms never experienced that stomach-dropping shock; there is not a child in school today who was alive when 9/11 happened.

The day the world changed

The moment the twin towers began to fall marked a turning point in Western history. 

That isn't to say events of equal importance or tragedy haven't happened before or since, but the nature of the terrorist attack, the scale, the loss of life - and the domino effect of everything that happened afterwards - means 9/11 is an event we must not exclude from the classroom, lest we forget to learn from it.

9/11 was the world's most fatal terrorist event in recent times, with 3000 lives lost. In the United States in 2001, the deaths from the attack made up for 0.12 per cent of all deaths that year. 

The struggle of teaching 9/11

Despite its clear impact upon the world, there isn't a clear place on the curriculum where the topic of 9/11 belongs, and with schools juggling so many demands on their time, it is easy to see how it might be overlooked.

Chief executive officer of Mulberry Schools Trust and headteacher of Mulberry School for Girls, Vanessa Ogden, knows all too well the challenge of planning a curriculum, but she believes that schools have a duty to try to fit the topic in.

"Teaching 9/11 is an important safeguarding issue," she says. "Children and young people must be able to distinguish ideology and extremism of any kind and [understand] how grooming to join extremist groups happens, to keep themselves safe." 

The SINCE 9/11 programme

The SINCE 9/11 education programme was founded on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the United States, with the support of the University College London's Institute of Education. The aim of the programme is to create a legacy of hope out of the horror and tragedy of the attacks.

The SINCE 9/11 education programme has since been downloaded over 10,000 times and used in classrooms across the country. This year, on 10 December, secondary schools can join a free virtual summit, where a panel of speakers will answer the question "Why is 9/11 relevant today?". In their answers, they will be exploring issues related to extremism, so teachers can continue those conversations with their students in the classroom. 

And teachers should be the ones having these conversations, says Peter Rosengard, the programme's founder and chairman because of the influential position that they are in.

"As the custodians of education, schools and teachers play a pivotal role in our society," he explains. "It is through learning that prejudice and ignorance can be overcome and peace and harmony can reign."

So, what does the programme look like? It contains lessons and resources for teachers to use with their students. There is also an essay-writing competition - the winners are sent on a trip to New York to visit the memorial centre at Ground Zero.

Where does our learning take us?

One past winner, Arya Tandon, reflects on how winning the competition altered the trajectory of his life. "During the trip, I rethought my A-level choices and changed my options," he explains. "I then as a result did a different degree: philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). I have since focused my studies on politics and the Middle East. I found the whole experience challenging, but in a good way."

Tandon believes that learning about the events of 9/11 is absolutely crucial for tackling terrorism today. "If you don't study it, you won't understand why, and we won't stop it happening again," he says.

Ogden agrees - she sees education as a key tool to dismantle the barriers built by intolerance.

"Learning about 9/11 is an important means of building a peaceful, stable and socially prosperous society in the UK," she says.

"9/11 exposed deep global social fault lines and spaces (physical and virtual) where people can gather to spread division and fear of 'the other'. Such exclusion threatens the harmony and wellbeing of our people. Classrooms are safe spaces where trusted and trained adults can work with youngsters - our future political and social leaders - to overcome division and build cohesion."

The legacy of 9/11

The proud but battered sculpture that now stands in the Olympic Park is an interesting metaphor for everything SINCE 9/11 is trying to do. From the broken pieces of steel, something new and beautiful is made; from a terrible atrocity, we hope to build a better world.

The work's creator, Mya Ando, explains how she sees her artwork as a reminder of the need for peace: "My hope for this artwork has always been to show respect and to continue to always remember the victims of 9/11 as well as all of the terrorist attacks on our nations," she says. "May this found object (steel wreckage from the Twin Towers in NYC) remind us that violence is never the answer. May we find peaceful coexistence in the world."

Schools can sign up now to the online virtual summit taking place on 10 December 2020 by accessing the registration website here.

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