In teaching the events of 9/11 there is a tremendous opportunity to discuss the resiliency and resolve of our great nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 were the deadliest attacks on American soil in our nation's history. But the story doesn't end with the expansive and smoldering Ground Zero site in the heart of lower Manhattan. The stories of rescue, healing, and memorialization make the story of 9/11 one of resiliency.
I wanted to share this process with my students, who were all but a few months old when the attacks happened, in a way that would resonate with them. I found this opportunity in the incredible and very difficult work done by the 9/11 Memorial Museum's curator, Alice Greenwald. A veteran of Holocaust museums in various cities (including in Washington D.C.), Greenwald had the unenviable task of sifting through the thousands of artifacts and curating a museum that would speak to varied audiences and truthfully and honestly tell the story of 9/11.
This Digital History project asks students to play the role of curator in evaluating twelve 9/11 artifacts for possible inclusion in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum's collection. It begins with the students learning about the memorial contest and evaluating how the winning submission from Michael Arad met the stated contest criteria. This helps the students clearly identify the required criteria and to assess the success of the submission, setting them up to make their own proposals for artifact selection in using understood considerations and criteria.
Next, the students do a close read of an abridged 2012 New York Times article in which the author clearly points to nearly a dozen considerations that museum staff had to weigh in selecting and creating exhibits. These included: telling the true story of 9/11, being careful not to re-traumatize visitors who experienced the attacks, speaking to a wide audience (in terms of age, association, and language), as well as protecting the privacy of the victims. In recording these considerations, the students will develop a checklist with which to evaluate the set of twelve artifacts.
Lastly, the students complete analysis worksheets for twelve real artifacts (some in the museum collection, others not) to evaluate the historical and emotional value and appropriateness of each item. The students then propose three artifacts that they would include in the collection and three that they would not include. I then projected these images on the class Smartboard and asked students to "vote with their feet": those supporting inclusion of the artifact move to stand by the image and those opposed move to the back of the room. We then engaged in a discussion and debate over the validity and value of including or omitting each artifact.
The lesson was a profound success and I encourage you to use it in your class and share your feedback with me. For those schools in the city, a trip to the 9/11 Memorial plaza is a highly recommended culminating activity, where students can see the memorial space first hand and evaluate its success for themselves.
Be sure to see my blog post on teaching Usama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa and an upcoming post on using RadioLab's "60 Words" podcast to teach the background and impact of the 2001 Authorization to Use Force.
Teaching 9/11 can be emotionally difficult - certainly more so for us teachers than for our young students - but the lessons of resiliency, healing, and the rebirth of the World Trade Center site provide for a unique opportunity to share a concrete and specific life lesson in the grief process and the indomitable human spirit.
The lesson plan, student handout, NYT article, and artifacts can be found at the given links or under the Digital History tab at the top of the page.