I begin with an excellent 5 minute video "9-11 Attacks"
from the History Channel. This video engages the students fully, and is a necessary prologue to our lesson. I next tell the students about my own experience on Sept. 11th, 2001. The DJs on the radio making fun of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers- speculating about a crazy accident, although why they'd joke about even that made no sense. I changed the station to check on it, and the events unfolded from there. I finish my story with the note that it was our school picture day. The staff photo taken between the time of Towers falling was so dismal that it was never released to the school. As a historian, I regret that such a primary resource was kept from me.
Making the experience personal is a good way to bring about the discussion in a non-threatening way. With each passing year, the date seems more irrelevant to elementary kids. It's a day much like Pearl Harbor Day to younger generations- they know it's important, but the impact is only secondary to them. Because of this, I choose to focus on the ethnic diversity of our world and how we can work to achieve peace.
Taped on the Smartboard and around the room are images honoring 9/11/01 and art work produced by students in my class at that time. I invite the class to solemnly circle the room, taking time to observe these pieces of art. The fact that they were created by my students at that time adds sincere interest. I ask the students to choose a favorite among the pictures, and write the reason for their choice. Many enjoy sharing this information. Additionally, I have an amazing poster of every victim's name printed in World Trade Center. The names are so tiny that even sharp-eyed 5th graders have trouble seeing them. It's a significant visual for understanding the loss that our country suffered that day.
After the kids have had a chance to observe the art work and images around the room they return to their desks. Between the Warm Up and tour of images, discussion has been rich and possibly lengthy, and that's ok. I overhear interesting snippets of conversation as they circle the room. Things such as, "My dad used to work at the World Trade Center, but wasn't there that day," to "How many people got out in time?" or "We saw the memorial in NYC last summer," and always, "Why would anyone want to get on a plane and kill themself?" These questions aren't always or even usually directed toward me. If I'm close enough, I may be asked to answer, but generally, they appreciate just conversing with their classmates.
I tell the kids that we live in a diverse world and follow up with the question, "What exactly does that mean?" Understanding that people have different viewpoints and different religions is a good way to angle the conversation towards peace. A wonderful book, that I highly recommend, is called The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. I picked it up at our school book fair out of sheer luck about ten years ago, and it's been my first read aloud of each year, ever since. It's about a young girl living in Taliban controlled Afghanistan and out of necessity, she must cut her hair and appear to be a boy in order to keep her family alive. We begin school the first or second week of August in AZ, so by the time Sept. 11th arrives, this book is a part of their collective knowledge. The diversity and tumultuous circumstances in The Breadwinner expose my kids to the challenges they never dreamed children their age really experience. This book certainly does enhance our conversation. My students refer to it frequently as they ponder reasons for these terrorist acts when there are no good reasons available.
Unlike many writing assignments, I want this one to come from the heart. It's a narrative, yet also an opinion peace. Most often, we are compelled to look at each piece of writing as an opportunity to evaluate/check off a box for the writing portfolio/pump up a specific trait. Sometimes, we need a breath of fresh air. I simply ask them to respond to the writing prompt:
The United States is a diverse country. People from different ethnic and religious groups live in the United States. Most people get along, but some do not. What suggestions do you have for peaceful coexistence?
My expectations are as follows: They are to think of the topic and just begin writing what comes to them, and should thoughtfully fill at least one notebook page. Although they're accustomed to completing at least two drafts, this time it's their choice because I want this to feel different than a writing assignment because this is a different day. There are numerous kids who do indeed choose to perfect their work and create a better draft.
By the time they have the opportunity to write, they're fully charged and ready to go. I have also given them the assignment to draw an illustration (for example, World Trade Center image on American Flag). Most kids begin with the narrative, although a few choose to draw. Regardless, they're aware that the expectations are completion of both and that's what happens.
Their illustrations (for example, God Bless America poster) are about anything having to do with Sept. 11th, peace, our country, etc. and they typically use markers and or colored pencils. I've had kids request to use just pencil, and although I love the red, white, and blue everywhere, those pencil drawings can really stand out. While the kids work, I circulate and observe. If kids are struggling with what to write or draw I'll have them view the works around the room to get an idea. Knowing the kids' ability levels and tolerance of writing is very helpful.
The kids have the opportunity to share their illustration and narrative, but I don't require it of them. Some of the kids are hesitant to read what turns out to be more personal than they expected to write. I usually have about 1/3 of the kids participate through reading, but the active listening is 3/3. I'm so proud to say that a lot of the kids dig deep within to write and draw their feelings.
Sometimes classmates have questions about the essay or picture, and I don't think I've ever had a student refuse to answer. If the kids are willing to share what they've written, I guess they're more than happy to explain or back it up. I enjoy observing the interchanges between the reader and audience. There are presentation opportunities throughout the year in which kids at their desks are sometimes distracted or disinterested, but this day is not one of them. They listen, consider, and participate when curious.
My method of evaluating this writing assignment is loose compared with the typical one. As I mention in the reflection, I was suprised this year when a student completely ignored the topic of writing about peace, and instead wrote a letter to the victims of 9/11 to let them know what the world was like in 2013. Had I chosen to judge her work based on adhering to the topic, she wouldn't have fared well. Instead, it was a great example as to why I evaluate more personally, focusing on effort, which is not hard to determine.
At the end of the day, I take down the September 11th images and artwork, and replace with the new creations for them to contemplate with their classmates.