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To these kids, 9/11 is history: teaching a national tragedy

Debbie Sobeck and her fifth grade class at Kennerly Elementary School discussing the events of Sept. 11.
Julie Bierach
St. Louis Public Radio
Debbie Sobeck and her fifth grade class at Kennerly Elementary School discussing the events of Sept. 11.

It’s been ten years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  To mark the anniversary, teachers are discussing the event with students.

Julie Bierach reports on how one fifth grade teacher at a St. Louis County elementary school is using a lesson about 9/11 to teach about character.

To these kids, 9/11 is history

On a recent Friday morning, Debbie Sobeck’s fifth grade class at Kennerly Elementary School in St. Louis County quietly enters the classroom. These students are part of the millions of Americans who either were born after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or were too young to comprehend the event. They don’t know what it felt like to see the second plane hit the South Tower, they didn’t gasp as they watched both towers collapse to the New York City ground. To those who saw it unfold, 9/11 is still a current event; to these kids, it’s history.

"We are going to focus on the fact that so many heroes came out of 9/11 whether they wanted to be a hero, or not,” said Debbie Sobeck, a fifth grade teacher at Kennerly Elementary near Sunset Hills. “And with all the natural disasters that we have going on in the world, in Joplin, and close to us, that people step up and they do the right thing.”

Focusing on first responders

Teachers at Kennerly will focus on first responders and heroism as lessons of 9/11. Sobeck and her students are beginning a week-long project learning about Sept 11. Sobeck starts by asking a simple question:

Sobeck: “What do you know about September 11?”

Student: “It was the day that terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York.”

Sobeck: “Absolutely. Alisa?”

Alisa: “It’s the day that a bunch of people lost their lives.”

Sobeck: “Absolutely. Katie?”

Katie: “One of the airplanes crashed into a field…”

Students know that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And they know that a plane crashed in a field outside Pittsburgh because passengers banned together and took control of the cockpit.

Sobeck’s plan includes a book called “The Day the World Changed.” It’s written from the perspective of a young student. The kids sit quietly as Sobeck starts to read.

“People all over the country were donating blood, while others donated money,” Sobeck begins.

It was written by a Lindbergh teacher and outlines what happened on Sept. 11. Sobeck’s lesson will not include photos or videos from that day. Instead, teachers are using age-appropriate books and educational videos. Suzanne Christopher is the principal at Kennerly Elementary.

“We recognize that it’s crucial to teach these difficult topics,” Suzanne Christopher, principal at Kennerly, said. “And we work together to do that in a way that doesn’t increase a student’s sense of vulnerability or helplessness.”

Later in the week, Sobeck will show her students a short movie about 9/11 called “The Mysteries of Life.”

It’s a video from an educational website called “Brain Pop.” It uses animation to show the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. Two characters in the video, a young man named Tim, and a loveable robot named Moby, visit the World Trade Center site reminiscing about what happened that day. The characters talk about terrorism, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and explain that Islam is a peaceful religion.

The use of patriotism

Marvin Berkowitz is the Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He says teachers need to be careful with how they talk about patriotism when teaching about 9/11. Speaking by phone from a conference in New Mexico, Berkowitz said teachers should avoid sending the message that it was American virtue that responded to 9/11.

“A lot of the people who died were not Americans, and a lot of the people who went in and did heroic things were not Americans. So, it wasn’t a matter of a parochial or a nationalistic bent,” Berkowitz said. “And that worries me because in this shrinking world, more and more we try to create this isolationistic notion that we’re better than everybody else.”

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11, students at Kennerly Elementary will be sending letters to firefighters, doctors, nurses and police officers, thanking them for their service. Teacher Debbie Sobeck and Principal Suzanne Christopher hope that through learning about the heroes of 9/11 students will be motivated to reach out to communities in need as a tribute to those who perished on that day.