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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Teaching 9/11 through comics

September 16, 2022

Courtesy: Marvel Comics

Overview

In lesson author Tim Smyth’s book, “Teaching with Comics and Graphic Novels: Fun and Engaging Strategies to Improve Close Reading and Critical Thinking in Every Classroom” (Routledge 2022), he discuss the integration of comics in education. When historic events show up in comics, students pay attention in a way not always seen with traditional teaching resources. This lesson offers helpful ideas on how to use comic resources in the classroom — in this case, to explore important questions about September 11th.

Subjects

U.S. History, Social Studies, ELA & Arts

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class

Full Lesson

View

For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. (Let participants know they’ll need to make a copy of the document, so they can add their names, and input their answers. See top left of the screen → Go to File → Make Copy)

Materials

  • Pen and paper or computer
  • Internet access
  • Optional: The full issue Amazing Spider-Man #36

Introduction

“Comic books serve as societal artifacts, as does all pop culture. What happens in the world around us shows up in these current and relevant pieces of literature.” — Tim Smythe, lesson author and teacher

The example used in this lesson looks at 9/11 is it appears in the “Amazing Spider-Man #36” (Vol. 2 No. 36 December 2001, Marvel Comics). The writer of this lesson, Tim Smyth, uses it in his own class and has used it to have a powerful conversation about the day with his own children. You can read his thoughts below.

Main activity

Marvel’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36 opens on a two-page spread with Spider-Man at ground zero shortly after the towers collapsed. Only the artwork appears in the panel below, but in the original comic Spider-Man narrates, “…God. Some things are beyond words. Beyond comprehension. Beyond forgiveness.” Have participants read the text in bold and examine the image closely.

Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

• Participants should examine the panels and then write down responses to the following questions (or work in pairs) and then discuss as a class.

Discussion questions:

  1. Look at the visual evidence and describe how Spider-Man is feeling — what does he look like? How does his reaction mirror that of how you think many Americans felt?
  2. Analyze his words. What do they mean? Do you feel like something like this attack is beyond comprehension now?
  3. Why can he not forgive? Should he? What do you think he will do?
  4. What did America do? What would you do?

Reflection: Discuss as a class how the comic format allows for an exploration of these questions in a way that a textbook or news source might not.

Extension activity

Directions: If available, have participants read through the full “Amazing Spider-Man #36.” Or examine the images available on this lesson. As they do so, ask them who are some of the other heroes and “regular” people sharing thoughts, emotions and even blame on 9/11? Participants might also keep a running log to record their thoughts, annotations and reactions. Start by asking: How do the characters mirror the feelings/reactions of Americans and people around the world? You might also ask these additional questions:

  • We see parts of NYC and Ground Zero – GPS coordinates are even given. Have students use Google Earth and look up these coordinates – what is there now? How well does it match the comic depiction? Analyze images from before 9/11 and on that day – compare to the comic.
  • Opinions are also offered as to the reasoning behind the attack and the surprise of Americans – students can research the previous attack on 11/5/1993 on the towers and take a wider approach to these horrific events.
  • We then also begin to see the real-life heroes of the day – first responders. Ask students to write about how different responders were depicted in the comic, and how they are depicted in media about 9/11 produced today.
  • When finishing reading the comic, students can discuss why Marvel decided to publish this story. What should the artists/author have done differently? What panel was the most impactful to you/why?
  • Students can be tasked with creating their own comic about 9/11 or other event in history as they research and interpret the chosen/assigned topic.

Image courtesy of Marvel Comics
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics
Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

Other recommended resources

  • “Heroes: The World’s Greatest Super Hero Creators Honor the World’s Greatest Heroes” (Vol. 1 No. 1 December 2001 Marvel Comics). This is a powerful collection of one-page artist reaction to the events of 9/11. Some images are depictions of Flight 93, first responders, students in classrooms, and reactions from superheroes. Each student could be given a different page/image to interpret and discuss.
  • “9-11: The World’s Finest Comic Book Writers and Artists Tell Stories to Remember” (DC Comics 2002). This is also a collection of artists/authors’ depictions of 9/11. Students can again be tasked with a single story and interpret/discuss it. Just the cover alone – that of first responders being depicted on a large billboard and Superman stopping to reflect and saying, “wow,” is enough to get the conversation going.
  • Big Apple Diaries by Alyssa Bermudez (2021 Roaring Book Press) – graphic novel. This is graphic memoir from the author as she was a young teen in NYC and experienced 9/11.
  • The 9/11 Report a Graphic Adaptation by Lee Hamilton and Thomas H. Kean (Hill and Wang, 2006).

Educators: Tim Smyth, lesson author, shared some thoughts that might help you think about your own memories of 9/11, and the different ways you have taught September 11th over the years. For other resources, visit TeachingWithComics.com and go to the 9/11 page.

From the lesson author: 9/11. “The second day of my being a student teacher and a day that will impact me, and so many others, for the rest of my life. But how do we teach the importance of this day to students who weren’t even born yet? How do we take a step back from our emotions and engage students in a way that is not overwhelming?

“I remember my daughter coming home from elementary school distraught and scared as her teacher had shared a video of people jumping from the towers. How did I help her make sense of what she had seen and the importance of these events? Comics. Comic books serve as societal artifacts, as does all pop culture, as what happens in the world around us shows up in these current and relevant pieces of literature.

“When these events show up in comics, students pay attention in a way not typically seen through traditional teaching resources. This is true when a school shooting happened in Miles Morales’ (Spider-Man) high school (Champions #24, November 2018, Marvel Comics) as students saw the reality of school shootings and active shooter drills and this opened the conversation in a powerful and accessible way about how they were feeling. The example I use in class when discussing 9/11 is the Amazing Spider-Man #36 (Vol. 2 No. 36 December 2001, Marvel Comics), and this is the comic I used to have a powerful conversation with my own children.”


Tim Smyth teaches 10th and 11th grade social studies at Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Smyth has spoken about how he uses comics in his classroom at numerous conferences including Comic Cons in San Diego, New York and Chicago as well as at the Pennsylvania and National Council for the Social Studies conferences. He has also guest lectured at multiple universities and travels the country giving professional development on comics as engaging literature. He also works with the U.S. State Department in a global online exchange program teaching educators and students to use comics to find their voice and to solve pressing global issues. Smyth maintains a comprehensive website and blog on all things comics in education at TeachingWithComics.com.

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