Adam Soto was an 11th grader at a high school on Staten Island when two planes hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
He remembers how students crowded the windows to catch a glimpse of the New York City skyline. They could see smoke and the orange sky of flames from the classroom.
“Then it was pandemonium, with kids crying,” he said. “We started hearing announcements of kids getting picked up. It was like a roll call; everyone was there to pick up their children.”
Now Soto, an English teacher at Northeast Middle School in Bethlehem, finds himself trying to connect his sixth grade students to the terrorist attack that happened 20 years ago. .
Today’s school children were not born when the United States experienced its worst terrorist attack. Many of their parents were likely still in school themselves and they are the ones with memories of watching the twin towers crumble on TV. For Soto’s students, 9/11 is history rather than a memory.
Soto and his colleagues try to find ways to give the recent history resonance. He does a fishbowl activity where he shows students pictures from Sept. 11 and asks what they see. Sometimes he connects it to a poem. He tries not to get too negative for his classroom of sixth graders, who are about 11 years old.
“I do say there are people in the world that decided to do something horrible to us,” he said. “But our country came together, if only for a moment. It seemed like there was a togetherness, a unity in our country, and heroes not only in New York City but all around the world and around the U.S.”
Teachers at the school follow a Sept. 11 lesson plan that calls for walking students through the timeline, showing them iconic photographs from the day, and sharing background information. They can also play clips of then-President George W. Bush addressing the country and share firsthand accounts.
There’s another theme, too, said Toni Derrington, an eighth grade history teacher and the school’s history content leader.
“It was such a tragic event and yet it changed America in such a positive way, bringing the nation together,” she said.
At Northeast, 9/11 is marked each year with a schoolwide gathering with speeches, the marching band and a moment of silence.
“We as a staff feel comfortable in the ability to have the kids be able to take in that silence and that remembrance but share how they feel and how they can make it better,” said Denise Parker, a music teacher at the school.
For some students, the moment is a time for quiet contemplation, for others, it’s emotional, Parker said. Some might brush it off because the silence is unsettling, she said.
She’s curious to see how students handle the event, held Sept. 10 this year, after spending so much time in the pandemic.
“It will be interesting to see because we’re coming out of a trauma, to think about trauma that happened to our country 20 years ago,” she said. “I just hope people will talk with their children about that significant day and that we move toward being thankful for the freedoms we have and have yet to achieve.”
Other Northeast teachers also talk about the ways Sept. 11 changed security procedures for the country, and that it is why students have to go through such a rigorous process before getting on a plane.
“Kids’ minds are blown when I say ‘you used to be able to smoke a cigarette on an airplane, you used to be able to walk on a plane with a bottle of water,’ ” Derrington said, noting the security even at places like Dorney Park has changed. “Sept. 11 made us very aware of the vulnerability of our nation to bad people.”
When Derrington talks to her eighth graders about Sept. 11 this week, she plans to touch on the ways Muslims were stigmatized after the attack, and how that mirrors the ways some have been hostile to Asians during the coronavirus pandemic.
She also makes it personal by sharing her experience that day: being at college, trying to reach her family on a relatively new device, the cellphone, and only getting an emergency signal instead.
She tells them about the fear and anxiety of the time, and that feeling that America was under attack.
“That’s the piece these kids are missing, because they don’t have that personal connection to that day,” she said. “Students will understand what happened that day, but it’s our job as teachers to convey that emotional piece.”
Students might not have the same personal connection to Sept. 11 as they have in the past, but they do have a greater understanding of world events, Derrington said.
“Because of technology, I feel like our kids in general are more exposed to what’s happening in the world. It’s right at their fingertips,” she said.
In recent years, students have understood that there’s conflict and turmoil in the Middle East, and that those can relate to something that happened 20 years ago, she said.
“When I go to teach this on Sept. 10, my kids may not understand al-Qaeda, for example, but if I explain to them it’s a terrorist organization like ISIS, or make the connection to thing they’re familiar with today, it brings full circle their understanding of events,” she said.