Teaching September 11: History or current event?

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series exploring the 10th anniversary of September 11. Learn about the museum’s commemoration.

Last fall, as the museum’s education team began thinking about our plans for the 10th anniversary of September 11, we started a conversation with the Thinkfinity online community about how teachers approach September 11 and what materials they need to discuss it with students. We received a number of interesting responses, including this one:

“[t]his year’s 9th graders were in kindergarten in 2001—and know very little about the day’s events . . . Even though it is a ‘current event’ for me, it is ‘history’ for them.”

While there were also many requests for basic information about the events of the day, this issue remained an essential one: for teachers, September 11 may still be a raw experience, whereas for students, it may barely be a faint memory. So we tried to think about how to bridge teachers’ personal experiences with September 11 with students’ understanding of the event. What lessons can we draw about an event just ten years out, and how do we recognize the different perspectives of the day? This touched upon something we as educators and as historians must grapple with: when does something become “history”? When have we achieved enough distance from an event to consider it “historically”?

911 conference site

Through our conversations with teachers, we decided to develop a two-day online conference, September 11: Teaching Contemporary History, with fellow educators at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the Pentagon Memorial and the Flight 93 National Memorial to both address the events of the day and to think about how we interpret it as time goes on. The conference will include a roundtable discussion with content experts and an educator on “The Past, Present, and Future of September 11,” and another with two child psychologists and two family members of September 11 victims on “Discussing Difficult Topics with Young People.” Individual conference sessions will include examinations of classroom materials at each site, an introduction to memorials as storytellers, a discussion of the work of curators with a special focus on collecting recent history, and more. To view the full program, visit the website.

In response to the educators who requested information about the events of September 11, the conference website includes frequently asked questions about September 11 and timelines from each memorial site, along with related educational materials. We hope this will turn into a “one stop shop” of useful, accurate materials about September 11.

For those unable to participate on August 3 and 4, and recognizing that some teachers may discuss this in September while others may teach it at other times of the year, the program will be archived and available on the conference website. You may contact us or continue the conversation in the Thinkfinity Community groupspecifically designed for discussions about teaching September 11. We look forward to discussing this important topic with you.

Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.