Teaching 9/11: A Challenge for Today’s Educators

By Dr. Rona Novick
Dean, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration
Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics And Values

Dr. Rona Novick

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a day of learning for high school girls about prayer and spirituality. Since it convened in lower Manhattan, the organizers decided to arrange a pre-prayer meditation at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. I shared my recollections of work with 9/11 trauma victims and families in a center designed for them overlooking “the pit.”

Just speaking about it, my chest tightened and my eyes watered. As I walked the perimeter of the memorial and read the names, I felt a wave of sadness.  My teenage students, however, seemed, barely moved. I realized that they had been a year old when the buildings fell. They never knew what was, what was lost, how much the day changed our world.

Teaching history requires introducing students to a reality they have never experienced, helping them travel through time to understand a different world. Often history lessons ask students to consider a time, a place, a culture totally foreign to them, many years in the past. Often this history concerns people and events not directly lived by their teachers.  As we consider how to teach the history of 9/11, though it happened 20 years ago, I believe we face some unique challenges.

This is a history lesson in which most of today’s teachers were a part of the story, some very personally, as they lost loved ones or were directly impacted. Others were touched in less direct but no less meaningful ways. We remember where we were, how we felt, what the days and weeks after were like. We want to impart those powerful experiences and may be frustrated when our students don’t resonate with our own feelings of devastation and loss.

I wonder if because 20 years is the recent past, it lacks the “charm” of more remote or ancient history. Does the culture and context of 9/11/2001 look so similar to our present that it doesn’t garner interest? Does this actually make it harder for today’s students to engage in learning about 9/11? Or is it too close for comfort? Some students may have been personally impacted: a relative lost or a relative who developed illness as a result or know someone who has struggled with post-traumatic stress.

We know that teaching about traumatic historical events can be an emotional trigger for some students. We have learned much about how to sensitively and in developmentally appropriate ways teach about the Holocaust, about slavery, about other horrific acts perpetrated through history. Our current challenge is, however, complicated. We are teaching students in the midst of a global pandemic that has impacted every aspect of their lives. There have been numerous studies documenting the psychological impact of the pandemic. Is there a risk that teaching about a recent devastating event will be a significant trigger for many?

This year, 9/11 falls on a Saturday, so perhaps educators feel they need not discuss 9/11 at all. Perhaps, even with the challenges inherent in this anniversary under pandemic conditions, we can convey the impact of history, honor the memory of those lost, and teach our students important lessons of history and for today. We can acknowledge the horrific loss that terrorism causes and focus on the acts of heroism and compassion that followed, the responses of individuals and communities that redefined a city and a nation.

We can teach about resilience, about how even in moments of crushing despair and unimaginable cruelty, we can go on, we can grow. We can teach about how gratitude and generosity help with healing. We can share our memories of how we learned to live with uncertainty, how we learned to count blessings. And we can listen to our students’ questions, honor their struggles, hopes and worries, and nurture their strengths. We can validate their experiences with our own personal knowledge that while life sometimes presents the unpredictable or the unthinkable, the resilient human spirit always offers hope.