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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: 9/11 — Ways to reflect on the day’s legacy more than two decades later

September 10, 2022

Sun setting behind Twin Towers. (Photo by Robert Pirillo/Ovoworks/Ovoworks/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


September 11, 2022 marks 21 years since the terrorist attack that shaped the course of the nation’s — and the world’s — history. Students in high school and middle school who were not yet born on September 11, 2001, have still grown up in a cultural and political environment that owes much to the actions of the United States in response to 9/11. 

The purpose of this lesson is to invite participants to generate and share their own questions about both the day of 9/11 and the larger context of the response that followed, including the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan that is just now ending after two decades. Each night leading up to September 11, PBS NewsHour will feature stories examining how this recent history has shaped the nation and the world. These NewsHour pieces will become optional components of the lesson after they are aired.

Click here for a series of slides that can supplement this lesson (note: you will be prompted to make a copy).


  • Understand the history and impact of the 9/11 attacks
  • Construct critical questions around the anniversary of 9/11 and its present-day context
  • Evaluate & reflect on personal understanding of 9/11 through critical questions


Social Studies, English Language Arts

Estimated Time

One 60-minute class period (or 2-3 class periods more if using optional resources & extensions)

Full Lesson


Original lesson appeared Sept. 11, 2021.

Sun setting behind Twin Towers. (Photo by Robert Pirillo/Ovoworks/Ovoworks/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

For a Google version of this lesson click here.

A note on teaching hard history: Most educators can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when 9/11 unfolded. Today’s generation of students does not share this collective memory, with today’s high school seniors being born a couple of years after 2001. 

Teaching 9/11 on its anniversary has its merits, as does teaching 9/11 within the curricular context of American and global history. We encourage educators to explore the wealth of resources provided in this lesson plan, to examine their own unanswered questions and biases, and to reflect on pedagogical practice before bringing in traumatic and provocative images of 9/11. 

Check out “Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies” and consider how you might design lessons that engage with hard history with a trauma-informed lens. Read Learning for Justice’s article “Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam” and incorporate media literacy education as you confront misinformation. 

In addition, consider doing the following:

  • Preview your expectations or reminding your class about norms
  • Name clearly the topics; create time for participants to reflect and process
  • Teach with a trauma-informed lens
  • Consider the emotional response of your participants and yourself

Warm up activities (5-10 mins):

Note for instructors: Whether you’re teaching about 9/11 on the anniversary of the attacks or as a part of your broader curriculum, starting with the questions participants have can set up an anchor and circular flow (returning to those questions to close out or build upon them in the end). Remind participants to be and stay curious and to practice the skill of writing and developing strong questions.

  1. Generate: Participants write as many questions as they can about the September 11 attacks — without stopping to revise, edit, evaluate or answer their questions. 
  2. Reflect: Then, participants circle or mark their three most important questions — and briefly reflect on why they selected these three.
  3. Turn & Talk: Participants turn and share their three questions, noting what may overlap or be different, and have partners share out questions to gauge what participants are curious about. This is also an opportunity to note any misinformation or incorrect assumptions participants may have to clarify & revisit. Read “Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam” by Learning for Justice to learn more.

Main activities (30-45 mins)

Directions: Choose one or more activity best suited to your class based on the many factors your role as a teacher requires you to know.

Part 1

  1. Watch the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s short film (3 minutes): This video outlines the events on the morning of 9/11. As participants listen, instruct them to watch for any answers to the questions they just constructed. CONTENT WARNING: This video contains images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon after they are hit.
  2. Optional: Take a detour into a robust timeline of the 9/11 attacks using this interactive guide at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and pair it with this “Historical Timeline of Afghanistan” from PBS NewsHour. Focus on context-building, asking participants to investigate questions, connections and narratives they see represented. 
  3. Clarify and reflect (5-10 mins): Turning to talk with their partners again (or return to their notebook to write), what did participants notice about the short clip or (timelines) that answered some of their questions?
  4. Together with their partner, what new questions can they create? Note: If a participant replies with “I don’t have any questions,” encourage them to practice the skill of questioning and examining what they think, why they think it and what they wonder. Encourage curiosity.
  5. Share this infographic with participants. After reviewing, ask participants: What surprises them? Does anything connect to the questions they crafted?
    • 2 — The age of the youngest victim on 9/11
    • 4 — Total number of passenger airplanes hijacked by Al Qaeda terrorists
    • 20 — The years since the 9/11 attacks
    • 60 — New York City police officers (23) and Port Authority police officers (37) who were trying to evacuate and save office workers on the tallest floors of the World Trade Center
    • 343 — Firefighters and paramedics who lost their lives during the emergency response
    • 2,977 — Lives lost in the 9/11 attacks
    • 10,000 — Nearly ten thousand individuals were injured, with tens of thousands more impacted with chronic illness, injuries or cancer due to the toxic environmental impacts of ground zero.
  6. Ask participants: What stories do these numbers tell? What stories don’t these numbers tell? (Can invite participants to update their list of questions here, pushing into open-ended questions vs. closed questions.) 

Part 2

  1. Watch The 9/11 Memorial & Museum has a trailer (3 minutes) for one of their programs featuring some personal connections individuals have to 9/11. 
  2. After watching the 9/11 Memorial & Museum clip, invite participants to write & reflect:
    • What did you notice, what surprised you, or what do you now wonder after hearing from some individuals who have a personal connection to that day? 
    • Now that you’ve reviewed or learned some of the historical context of 9/11, what do you know or wonder about the legacy of 9/11? What impact has the 9/11 terrorist attacks had on the United States? Other countries? Ordinary and everyday people in the United States? 
    • Turn & talk: Have participants share some of their ideas, questions and reflections with their partner. 
    • Whole group: Invite participants to share any ideas, encourage questions and discuss together.

Part 3 (Choose one or more of the following activities)

Each night this week, PBS NewsHour features stories that examine some of the ways 9/11 transformed the nation and world. Choose one or more of the following available stories to discuss.

  1. Watch “American Muslims remember how 9/11 changed America as they knew it” (from 2021 – 10 minutes)
    1. As participants listen, have them track the perspective of each speaker and what they share about their personal experiences and connections to 9/11. Ask participants:
      • What do you notice? 
      • What do you wonder?
      • Does your community share anything in common with the communities of the speakers? How so?
      • How does (or did) 9/11 impact different communities? How so?
      • What other connections or questions can you craft?
      • NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz says: “20 years later, there is now an entire generation of young American adults, including American Muslims, who don’t have firsthand memories of [9/11], who did not live through the trauma, as all of us did.”
      • How do you think the impact of 9/11 varies from generation to generation? What similarities or differences do you notice among your generation versus your parent’s generation? And older generations?

  1. Watch “How 9/11 weighs heavily on the generation born after the 9/11 attacks” (3 minutes)
    1. As participants listen, preview the essential questions and ask them to listen for or track what they notice and wonder:
      • What are some of the ways these students’ lives have been directly impacted by the legacy of 9/11?
      • What are some ways these students sees their generation’s experience as different from past generations?
    2. Once participants have time to process & create connections, you could have a whole class discussion, turn and talk, or have participants meet in small groups to share ideas, noticings and wonderings.
  2. Watch “Middletown lost the most residents on 9/11 after NYC. Here’s how the community is healing” (10 minutes)
    1. As participants listen, preview the essential questions and ask them to listen for or track what they notice and wonder:
      • What is Middletown’s connection to the 9/11 attacks? 
      • What were the different perspectives shared on how families coped with the loss of loved ones in the attacks?  
      • How does this feature story expand or inform what you already know about 9/11?
    2. Once participants have time to process & create connections, you could have a whole class discussion, turn and talk, or have participants meet in small groups to share ideas, noticings and wonderings.
  3. Watch “The direct line between national unity after 9/11 and partisan polarization in 2021” (10 minutes)
    1. As participants listen, preview the essential questions and ask them to listen for or track what they notice and wonder:
      • Why is it important to understand the emotional reaction of U.S. citizens on the day of 9/11, according to Graff?
      • What is the connection that Graff makes between 9/11 and political polarization?  
      • What do you think Graff means when he says 9/11 is slipping “from memory into history”? What are your first memories of learning about 9/11 or understanding the day’s events and legacy?
    2. Once participants have time to process & create connections, you could have a whole class discussion, turn and talk, or have participants meet in small groups to share ideas, noticings and wonderings.
  4. Discussion questions: In small groups or as a whole class, discuss the following questions:
    • As a generation, what has shaped your view and understanding of 9/11? How so? How might this differ from other generations or communities? 
    • What perspectives and narratives are you seeing and hearing surrounding the 20th anniversary of 9/11? 
    • How do you think the legacy of 9/11 will continue to evolve?  
    • Whose stories are being told? Is anyone’s voice missing? 

Closing (10-15 mins) 

Circle back to warm up questions for clarifying and answering the unanswered questions. (Could be collected as an exit ticket or final turn and talk.)

  1. Look back over the questions you created at the start of class.
  2. What’s one question that has been answered today? 
  3. What’s a new question you have or are thinking about? What’s left unanswered for you? What are you wondering about?
  4. What’s the impact of 9/11 on your generation? What do you predict will be the legacy of 9/11 for future generations? 

Optional extensions and integrations

Extension 1, Poetry Focus: Days before 9/11, poet Lucille Clifton welcomed a granddaughter into the world and remembers eating lunch on the day itself as she “watched on television the devastation of the Twin Towers.” In her poem “September’s Song: A Poem in Seven Days,” she examines “love and continuing and fear and hope.”

Share this excerpt of Tuesday and Sunday from the longer poem with students, reading aloud together or ask participants to annotate a copy of the poem (or digitally with a partner using this Google Doc). [Note: September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday]

Write in response:

  1. Ask participants to write their own day poem connecting to the themes of hope and fear, of love and continuing, mimicking some of Clifton’s style.
  2. Do not require participants to write specifically about 9/11. Instead leave the invitation open for them to write about what they choose.
  3. Or invite participants to identify vivid imagery, metaphors or symbols in the poem.
  4. Compare Clifton’s poem with excerpts from “With Their Eyes: September 11th — The View From A High School at Ground Zero.” What word choice evokes an emotional response in the reader? How does the physical structure of the poems impact the way it is read aloud? As writers, what writing moves might participants employ in their own writing? 

Extension 2: Just over a year ago, more than 123,000 Afghan refugees, many fearing for their lives, were evacuated from Afghanistan and were resettled all over the world, including the United States. Thousands of Afghans did not make it out of the country before the U.S. military’s departure on Aug. 30. Explore who, what, when, where and how of the refugees arriving in the U.S., and what local community organizations are still working to provide assistance. Read this NewsHour article for more information.

  1. Inquire: What do trustworthy and credible charities and organizations look like?
  2. Explore: What is being done locally in your area or state?
  3. Understand: What don’t you know? What questions do you have?
  4. Apply: How could your class, school, or community support and welcome refugees? 
  5. What are the latest updates as to the Afghan refugees welfare and status in the U.S. and around the world?
U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load passengers aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021. Picture taken August 24, 2021. U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/Handout via REUTERS

Kate Stevens, M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction, is an instructional coach and educator with more than a decade of experience in online, hybrid, and blended learning. In 2015, Kate was honored with Colorado Department of Education’s Online & Blended Teacher of the Year. Connect with Kate on Twitter @KateTeaching.