Teaching 9/11: Using Oral Histories as an Avenue to Compassion and Understanding


Teaching about 9/11 can be difficult for many reasons. It is an emotionally and politically charged event, and for many educators, especially in the greater New York City area, the topic simply hits too close to home. However, as the years pass, it becomes more evident just how important it is that we embark down this road with our students.

High school students today have a unique perspective. They have no direct memories of 9/11, and yet their world has been shaped by its legacy. They are coming of age during a tumultuous time, and much of the divisiveness and uncertainty could arguably stem from the fallout of 9/11. Increased security in public spaces. Debate over personal privacy in cyberspace. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ISIS. Domestic terrorism. Growing tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Violence toward police officers. These are relevant issues in their lives that can be tied to the post-9/11 era. Our students need a safe place to explore what happened on 9/11 and discuss its lingering impact on our communities, society, politics and culture.

Delving into 9/11 involves being open to the deep emotional impact it may have on your students and, quite frankly, on you as their teacher. You may ask: Are my students mature enough to handle this information? How will I react to the material? Will my personal reaction get in the way of effectively teaching about 9/11? How will my students interpret my reaction? These are important concerns. However, this internal conflict confirms the very importance of teaching 9/11 in our high school classrooms and the role teachers play in helping our young people gain a better understanding of their post-9/11 society. Furthermore, we can leverage our own emotions to inspire and engage our students.

Ultimately, teaching about 9/11 requires striking the right balance between the emotional and academic so that students connect with their learning yet feel distanced enough to comfortably express their reactions and interpretations and to clearly analyze the material.

In an effort to assist educators willing to take this journey with their students, the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program has developed a series of 9/11 lessons that promote a broad and compassionate examination of 9/11 and its impact on American society. Hundreds of 9/11 responders came forward to share their individual experiences at Ground Zero and the impact their work had on their health and well-being. Their profound and authentic voices cut to the heart of so many issues and provide a clear window into 9/11, allowing those who did not experience 9/11 firsthand to encounter and observe.

It is these oral histories that serve as the basis for the wellness program’s new 9/11 unit. The goals of this unit are (1) to give educators a comprehensive set of lessons that encourages students to connect with the story of 9/11 and gain the foundational knowledge to then assess and analyze 9/11 as a compassionate historian, and (2) for students to encounter history through firsthand narrative, explore different perspectives and long-standing historical questions, and evolve with a greater understanding of 9/11 and an appreciation for how communities come together when hit with tragedy.

What we learn through listening to different perspectives shapes our own way of thinking and brings a new interpretation. As part of the lessons in this unit, students are asked to debate, make historical comparisons and write position papers. These activities encourage an evolution of thought and a deeper understanding of 9/11 and the profound ways it has impacted our society.

As a foundational piece of a 9/11 curriculum, responder stories allow students to deeply reflect on this historical event and think about its relevance in their own lives. The responder stories set up a framework for discussing issues like terrorism and how we as individuals and as a society respond to terror. Students learn how communities rise above devastation by lifting each other up and working together for the common good. In addition, these stories bring to light the importance of cultivating values that enhance our lives and create cohesive communities.

With the 15th anniversary around the corner, now is the time to consider the legacy of 9/11 and how as teachers we have the opportunity to share it with our young people. It is worth the journey.

Get more resources for teaching about 9/11 in this curated collection and on this PBS NewsHourExtra lesson plan.

About the author Julie A. Broihier 

Julie A. Broihier is the outreach and education, retention and quality data manager for the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program at Stony Brook Medicine. She has worked with the program since late 2007. During this time, she assisted in establishing the “Remembering 9/11” oral history program. As a lead interviewer for this project, Broihier has developed an intimate knowledge of 9/11’s deep impact on responders and their families and the complex repercussions of 9/11 on our culture.

Broihier and her team developed a variety of public education projects, including a library program, high school programs and a medical school course. She played an integral role in the production of materials for these programs, including video shorts on topics such as World Trade Center toxic exposures and related health issues, and the film, “9/11: An American Requiem.” She has worked with educators to develop materials tailored to a variety of audiences, and has participated in these programs as a guest presenter and moderator. In 2013, the wellness program was recognized by Long Island Business News for its public outreach and education initiatives (http://libn.com/health-care-heroes-awardees-2013/).

Broihier earned her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from St. Norbert College in 1999 and her Master of Arts and Science from Fordham University in 2003. She has worked in research and medicine at Stony Brook University since 2003.