Article

September 7th, 2021

Educator Voice: The ever-evolving ways I’ve taught about 9-11 over the past 20 years

Educator VoicePoliticsSocial StudiesU.S. history
Sari Beth Rosenberg, New York City history teacher, teaching a lesson about September 11th 20 years ago. Rosenberg started her 20th year teaching this year and continues to teach 9/11.

 

by Sari Beth Rosenberg, history teacher, New York City 

 

The 20th anniversary of 9-11 will also mark my 20th year of teaching history in New York City public schools.

That September day 20 years ago was to have been my first day of student teaching at LaGuardia High School. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen at the time. I always set my alarm clock to Z-100 because “The Z Morning Zoo” show was enough fun annoying madness to get me out of bed to start my day.

In my morning grogginess, I thought the Z Morning Zoo crew was engaging in a dark joke: something about the World Trade Center getting hit by a plane? I rushed to the living room to turn on the Today Show. It was real. I started making phone calls to friends already at work downtown.

My apartment became a refuge. We sat in stunned silence watching the news.

A friend called me from the roof of her office building on Canal Street, and that’s when I saw that the first tower was about to collapse. I screamed at her, “RUN!” and didn’t hear from her until eight hours later when she made her way to my apartment. My brother who normally took the PATH train to the World Trade Center had fortunately taken a different route that morning. He also made his way to my apartment along with a whole group of friends. My apartment became a refuge. We sat in stunned silence watching the news.

RELATED: Lesson Plan: 9/11 — Ways to reflect on the day’s legacy after two decades

It was impossible to wrap my head around the deep tragedy happening in real time. In a state of shock, I obsessively worried out loud that I was going to be in trouble for not reporting to my first day at school. 

I ended up student teaching at Stuyvesant High School for the next semester. Each day I had to pass by the gaping hole that was once the World Trade Center. It never got easier. I always lowered my head in reverence to the lives lost, trying hard not to stare too long at the site that was once my city’s beloved Twin Towers.

A picture of the World Trade Center towers is seen outside the New York Fire Department (FDNY) Engine Company and Ladder Company 10 near the 9/11 Memorial site, ahead of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, in New York, Sept. 10, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

While I mourned, I was surprised that my students — kids who had to run for their lives that day — seemed disaffected by the event. Were they still in shock?  

From personal history to just plain history

Nineteen years ago, when I first started teaching at the school where I still teach now, the High School for Environmental Studies, there was a one-year 9-11 memorial. Students performed spoken word poems, shared their memories from that day and the dance team performed to Cam’ron’s “Welcome to New York City.” 

It’s the home of 9-11, the place of the lost towers, We still banging, we never lost power, tell ’em.

Welcome to New York City, welcome to New York City. 

For the next few years, we held moments of silence at the precise times when each of the two towers fell. I would begin the school year by asking students to share their memories of 9-11 as a device to get them to start thinking about the work of historians.

Over the course of two decades, I watched 9-11 evolve from a personal moment in my students’ lives to just another page in the textbook.

As time passed, new crops of students were too young to remember 9-11. So, I told them my story and shared other primary and secondary sources when the anniversary came around each year. 

Over the course of two decades, I watched 9-11 evolve from a personal moment in my students’ lives to just another page in the textbook. 

9-11 became personal again

I began to emphasize the civil rights abuses and Islamophobia that occurred in response to 9-11, and my own memory and retelling of 9-11 changed, especially in the context of the 2016 election and a rise in hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Many of my students are undocumented. In 2017, teachers distributed letters to remind students and parents of their rights: they were safe from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents once they entered the school. “New York City is a sanctuary city, that means the federal government cannot access your records in the school building,” I informed my students. When I first started teaching, I could never fathom having to address this topic with my students.

Immediately after the 9-11 attacks, many of my students feared another Al Qaeda or ISIS terrorist attack. But by the year 2020, most of my students felt less safe from other threats. After the 2016 election, most of my students were more afraid of their own government and how the agencies originally designed to protect them from an external threat were now being weaponized against Americans who posed no threats whatsoever. 

A new brand of terror

January 6, 2021, I found myself watching my TV in a terrified trance, just as I had done on September 11. Instead of fighting for Al Qaeda, these domestic terrorists were fighting for “The Big Lie” about election fraud. As much as we’ve become well-accustomed to watching history unfold in real time, it almost felt like I was watching a documentary with my students. I was waiting for the Ken Burns effect to kick in as Morgan Freeman narrated the scene.

January 6, 2021, I found myself watching my TV in a terrified trance, just as I had done on September 11.

After seven hours, I shifted my focus from my TV screen to my laptop: How was I going to teach about this moment to my students? The events were still unfolding as I went to bed. I would have figure it out in the morning.

As I opened my laptop to teach my virtual classes on January 7, I decided to simply share my screen, clicking through images from the Capitol Insurrection. I told my students to write down their questions, reactions and thoughts about what had unfolded.

They wrote:

White Supremacy

Not surprised

My mom said it felt like 9-11

We are really living through history

I’m so scared

Disappointed

Disappointed 

Disappointed

As I watched their words populate the Google Meet chat on screen, I was not surprised. None of what happened in Washington, D.C. in Jan. 6 was shocking to most of my Gen Z students. Born in the shadow of 9-11, they spent their elementary years amidst the backdrop of the War on Terror, lived through the Great Recession, endured the spike in hate crimes tied to racism and xenophobia over the last few years and are trying to survive a global pandemic, all while coping with remote learning.

RELATED: The 9/11 anniversary in the classroom – Teaching resources

When I teach about 9-11 this 20th anniversary year, I have the added layer of the U.S. Capitol attack to include in the narrative. As we learn more about the 1-6 Insurrection, it is a reminder that terror, in different forms and iterations, is sadly endemic to the American story. 

20 years later

As the United States departs Afghanistan, I anticipate that my incoming U.S. History and AP U.S. History students will have a renewed interest in 9-11 and the corresponding War in Afghanistan. 9-11 frames my teaching career, however, for my recent students it is yet just another page in the story of America. From what I know about my Gen Z students, they will be concerned about the Afghan citizens, including the women, under Taliban 2.0 rule. They will also already be making connections between global conflict and climate change, I work at an environmentally-themed high school, after all. Also, since I teach New York City kids, they have stories from their parents who still remember September 11. For all of us who lived in NYC on 9/11, it is forever seared into our memories.

For all of us who lived in NYC on 9/11, it is forever seared into our memories.

It is my job as an educator to arm my students with facts, critical thinking skills and an empathetic understanding of the past. If we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years, it’s that education is crucial if we have any hopes of creating a world that is one day free of violence, fear and terror.

 

Sari Beth Rosenberg is an award-winning U.S. History teacher and writer. Her most recent media appearances include The Skimm’s Back To School series and Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.” Last year, she wrote the #SheDidThat series for A&E Television Networks/Lifetime. Sari helped write the new Global and U.S. History curriculum for the New York City Department of Education with a small team of educators. She also recently contributed to a forthcoming edition of the Hidden Voices curriculum. In March 2019 she was awarded the Paul Gagnon Prize by the National Council for History Education.  Sari has been teaching U.S. History at the High School for Environmental Studies, a public high school in NYC, for 20 years. Find her on Twitter & Instagram @saribethrose, her teacher Instagram @sariteacheshistory and at saribeth.com


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