Image: The Tribute in Light art installation shines twin beams of light over lower Manhattan each year on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. (Jin S. Lee, 9/11 Memorial and Museum)
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in a series of attacks in the United States. Two hijacked airplanes flew into the World Trade Center in New York, causing the towers to collapse later in the day. Another flew into the Pentagon (U.S. military headquarters) in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth hijacked plane, possibly bound for the U.S. Capitol or the White House, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after passengers and crew attempted to overtake the terrorists. The attacks were carried out by the militant group al-Qaeda.
People around the world pause on September 11 to remember those who lost their lives on the anniversary of the attacks, and vow to “never forget.” The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which opened in May 2014, will commemorate the 2021 anniversary with a reading of victims’ names and the “Tribute in Light,” two beams symbolizing the Twin Towers shining four miles into the sky above Manhattan from dusk on September 11 to dawn on September 12.
9/11 Classroom Activities for Middle and High School Students
Every year, the September 11 Memorial & Museum puts together a video that can be used in the classroom to start a discussion on this difficult topic. In this year’s video, available on-demand on September 10, the daughter of a pilot killed in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center tells her story. We also hear from a student who attended the Florida elementary school where President George W. Bush was first told about the 9/11 attacks. The program will be interpreted in American Sign Language, captioned, and can be played with Spanish subtitles. You can sign your class up for an interactive live chat where students can pose questions to museum staff. Follow these guidelines for talking with young people about terrorism in the classroom.
Looking for more ways to help your students understand the terror attacks and their impact? Use these 9/11 activities and lesson plans in your middle and high school classrooms. Review the videos, photographs, and other resources before sharing them with students as the events depicted are disturbing.
1. Read about 9/11
Most adults remember clearly the morning of September 11, 2001. We remember where we were, what we were doing, how we felt. But students today are too young to remember the attacks. Here are five thoughtful novels that will give middle and high school students a sense of what it was like to live through that time in history. The links below lead to novel excerpts, discussion starters, and teachers’ guides featuring cross-curricular activities.
Explain to students that scientists work hard not only to research answers, but also to think of the questions themselves. Have students complete the first two columns of a K-W-L Chart, briefly describing “What I Know” about 9/11 in the first column, and “What I Want to Know” about 9/11 in the second column. Next, students should do research on the topics they want to know about and write their findings in the third column, “What I Learned.”
Another option for students who need additional scaffolding is to have them simply find out what happened on that day and take notes on what they learn in a Five W’s (Who, What, When, Where, and Why) Chart. Here are more free graphic organizers that students can use for note-taking as they complete their research.
Students can use the following resources to begin their research.
Eight-part podcast series that looks at the events leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks
3. Study a Photo
Show a photo from 9/11 or its aftermath to the class, or allow students to choose a photo. Provide questions for analysis:
What is happening in the photo?
What story does the photograph tell?
How does the photo make you feel? What is it about the photo that makes you feel that way?
What makes the photo an important historical document?
For any or all of the questions, consider facilitating a robust discussion. First have students independently write down their thoughts. Encourage short notes and incomplete sentences. Next, have students share with a partner (or two) what they thought before inviting them to share their ideas with the class.
Finally, challenge students to write an essay describing how the photo can help viewers 100 years from now understand the events of 9/11.
4. Do an Interview
Have students watch a video of first-person accounts of the attacks and their aftermath. Play at least one person’s story for the class or have students watch the video on their own. Facilitate a class discussion using guided questions, such as:
What did you learn about 9/11 from the person’s story?
Why do you think the 9/11 Museum took video of people talking about their experience on September 11?
How do first-person accounts help us learn about history?
What questions do you still have after hearing the person’s story?
Then have students interview adults about their memories of 9/11. They should decide ahead of time how they will record the interview. Brainstorm with students a list of questions they might ask, such as:
Where were you when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?
What went through your mind?
What memory of that day has stuck with you the most?
How has the world changed as a result of 9/11?
How has 9/11 affected your life?
Share the first-hand accounts with the class. Students might transcribe the interviews and compile them into a book that everyone in the class can read. Or you can make all of the recordings available to the class. Discuss:
How are the first-hand accounts similar?
How are they different?
How do these accounts contribute to our understanding of 9/11?
5. Make Paper Cranes
Tell students that in Japan, origami paper cranes are a symbol of healing. After the terror attacks in New York City, people left paper cranes at the fence near Ground Zero. Those cranes, along with thousands of others donated by Japanese students, have been added to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. After a devastating tsunami struck Japan in 2011, the 9/11 Family Association gifted the country an origami crane melded from steel recovered from the World Trade Center as a symbol of hope in the face of disaster.
Encourage students to learn more about the history of origami paper cranes. They can also try their hand at making the cranes by following these step-by-step directions. Japanese legend has it that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, you will be granted a wish. Challenge students to work together to create 1,000 cranes to display in your classroom or school hallway, along with messages of hope for the future. Alternatively, the cranes could be donated to a local hospital, nursing home, or community center.
Why did the President make this address to the nation?
How would you describe the President’s tone?
Choose one word that you think was meant to elicit a strong emotion in the reader. What emotion does it bring out?
What is one claim that the president makes in the speech? What evidence does he provide to support that claim?
What effect does the speech have on you? Explain.
7. Explore Front Page News
Have students review newspaper front pages from September 12, 2001. Tell students that these are headlines people around the world woke up to on the morning after the attacks. In pairs, have students compare and contrast the front pages of two newspapers and take notes in a Venn diagram. Here are questions for them to consider as they complete the comparison: How are the images and headlines on each front page similar and different? Which front page gives readers a fuller picture of 9/11? Explain. Which front page do you find more compelling? Why?
8. Pen a 9/11 Poem
Have students watch poet Glenis Redmond teach a class on how to write a poem. Redmond teaches students how to write a self-portrait poem using alliteration, assonance, and anaphora. Tell students that the poems they write will not be about themselves. Instead, they will write a self-portrait poem from the perspective of someone who was impacted by 9/11. The subject of their poem can be a person they read about in a book, a news article, or a first-person video account. The person might be a first responder, an eyewitness, a victim of the attacks, or someone who lost a loved one that day. To write the poem, they’ll have to gather as much information as possible about the person’s experience on 9/11. Allow time for students to share their poems with the class.
9. Write an Opinion Piece
In this TIME video, photographer Richard Drew tells the story behind his photo “The Falling Man.” Newspapers around the world drew a barrage of criticism for publishing the photo. Should the image have been shared? Why did newspaper editors publish it? Why did people object to it? Have students watch the video to hear Drew’s defense of the photo and then do research to discover why many objected to publishing the image. Note: The photo may be disturbing to some students. Then have students write a persuasive essay defending the historical significance of the photo or condemning its use. This explainer on how to write a persuasive paragraph will help students get started.
Share Your 9/11 Lesson Plans
How do you teach the events of September 11 in your classroom? Do you have sensitive ways of addressing the attacks with your students? We’d love to hear your ideas. Share your 9/11 lesson plans with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.
Learn more about HMH Social Studies, which presents the rich, endlessly inventive story of our world, challenging students to dig deep into the past.