Many of the students in today’s elementary and middle school classrooms were just toddlers at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. For them, 9/11 is ancient history, as distant as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, most of the nation’s schoolchildren dropped their pencils and watched the devastation in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Many of the students in today’s elementary and middle school classrooms were only toddlers at the time of the attacks. Some weren’t even born. For them, Sept. 11 is ancient history, as distant as the moon landing or the Civil War.
“Four years ago, children (then in middle school had seen) it live, and were able to really understand it at a different level,” Norwell Middle School principal Derek Sulc said.
Kids today, he said, “May not have understood it or even watched it.”
Sulc said teachers in 2009, compared with those a few years ago, face the challenge of presenting material to students who don’t have a personal connection to the tragedy.
“To take Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, for me, I can only hear people’s stories,” Sulc said, “and hearing those stories is what makes it real and alive.”
Christie Coombs, whose husband, Jeffrey, was on American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center, hopes to bring that connection to students in Abington. She will speak to sixth-graders at the Woodsdale Elementary School about the attacks and how they changed the country.
“They need to understand how devastating this was,” Coombs, whose own children were in second, sixth and eighth grades when their father died.
Teacher Robin Gilpatrick said she warned Coombs that some of the students – only 4 years old in 2001 – aren’t aware of what Sept. 11 represents. Gilpatrick said she’s seen kids change their attitudes about history after listening to World War II veterans and hearing other first-hand accounts, and hopes Coombs’ talk will do the same.
“It just makes a whole lot of difference (compared to) seeing it in a textbook,” Gilpatrick said. “They read about it, but that’s a disconnect. It’s much more valuable to see it in person.”
Coombs acknowledged that for most families, Sept. 11 is not a topic that would come up at the dinner table unless there was a personal connection, but she believes it’s something that everyone must understand.
“I think it completely changed our country, and it is something that is worthy of discussion, especially around the anniversary,” Coombs said.
Just as children learn about Martin Luther King Day and Pearl Harbor, they should know Sept. 11, 2001, she said.
“They shouldn’t be going to schools saying, ‘What is 9/11?’” Coombs said. “They should learn what 9/11 is, and what it meant and what it did to our country.
“It’s necessary for kids of all ages to know."
Allison Manning may be reached at email@example.com.