Many schools around the country observe a moment of silence on Sept. 11 to remember the victims of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took nearly 3,000 lives. Yet for many students either born after the attacks 16 years ago or too young to remember this defining moment in U.S. history, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are history, not a memory.

How is this turning point in recent U.S. history taught in schools?

In classrooms across the country the content for teaching 9/11 is neither universal nor uniform. The National Council for the Social Studies does not track data on how the attacks are taught in schools or their place in curricula; neither does the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Researchers have noted that classroom materials vary in quality and depth with some history texts barely mentioning it. A 2011 research paper by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement surveyed states’ curriculum and found only 21 states “include the 9/11 attacks specifically as part of a standard, sub-standard, or as an example.”

In Texas, the Sept. 11 events are mentioned in the state’s public school curriculum starting in high school. High school students learn about 9/11 in their social studies classes. By the end of high school students typically learn about terrorism, radical Islamic fundamentalism, the U.S. response to 9/11, and the constitutional issues it raised. These topics are mentioned so that students may understand the significance of several turning points in recent history, including 2001 when the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred.

Sept. 11 is specifically part of the curriculum for World History in 10th grade and U.S. History in 11th grade,” said Leslie Price, chief communications officer for the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).

“For both subjects, 9/11 is listed explicitly in the state standards. While I do not think it is specifically stated in the 12th grade Government [standards], students would likely learn about 9/11 while they study U.S. foreign policy.”

Many local schools acknowledge Sept. 11 on the anniversary of the attacks in addition to teaching students about how this event impacted U.S. history.

Issy, 17 reacts during a video sharing a personal experience of the attacks on 9/11.
Alamo Heights High School student Issy, 17 reacts during a video sharing a personal experience of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It is likely that teachers in all social studies classes will recognize Patriot’s Day on 9/11 in their classes, with more in depth instruction on 9/11 in these three high school courses taking place later in the year based on the pacing of these courses,” according to Price.

Laurel Rittenhouse, a social studies teacher at Alamo Heights High School, is using videotaped stories from local people who shared their 9/11 experiences to help students understand the event.

“This is the second year we’re doing an advisory, a once-a-week time with your students when we focus on different school issues and current events,” Rittenhouse said. “For Sept. 11 we’re doing a memorial advisory for our high school students.”

Teachers asked the high school students to talk to their family members about what they remember from that day. This triggered the idea for gathering video recorded memories that highlight the magnitude of this seminal event.

“We aim to reconstruct that day for our students,” Rittenhouse said. “The video memorial will also show students how the country came together during this difficult time for the U.S.”

Students watched the mini-documentaries in class Monday as a campus-wide advisory lesson followed by discussion. Supplemental information on the attacks was provided to give context.

“The whole nation was flabbergasted by the attack,” said Naman Patel, 16, after watching the videos.

Katie Detner, 16, was one of the three students who suggested creating the video memorial. She also took images the students collected in their research and put together a photo montage from that day that accompanied the videos.

“I thought it would be a good idea to interview different teachers at our school to ask them what they remember from that day,” Detner said.

Katie Detner, 16, observes images of the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
Katie Detner, 16, observes images of the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At SAISD’s Burbank High School, Martin Ramirez teaches 11th grade U.S. history and history of the Americas. He is teaching students about the Industrial Revolution but has prepared a lesson focused on the Sept. 11 attacks for this year’s anniversary that also reinforce analytical capabilities in students.

Students will select someone to interview who can share their experiences from that day as well as read primary sources from people who were present at the attack sites. After watching short video footage from that day students will also learn specialized vocabulary such as Al Qaeda.

“We’ll have students make a list of interview questions and they’ll have a week to conduct it,” Ramirez said. “A week later they will submit a short essay, drawing conclusions about the impact of this historical event on contemporary life.”

Once the students conduct interviews and read the content, they become entrenched in the material, Ramirez said. He gave this same lesson plan two years ago and found it was an excellent opportunity for students to “learn some of their country’s history, make some modern-day connections to the material, and acquire practical skills such as interviewing and critical thinking.”

Nick, 16 responds to the class while reciting historical facts about 9/11.
Nick, 16, responds to his classmates at Alamo Heights High School while recalling facts about the Sept. 11 attacks. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At KIPP University Prep High School, a public charter school on West Commerce Street, Daniel Moon teaches social studies to 10th graders. Because his class just finished a unit on the Paleolithic era, teaching 9/11 as part of more recent U.S. history on or close to the attacks’ anniversary does not fit with the year’s curriculum. His plans are to use the anniversary not only as a way to memorialize the event, but to help students understand what most people experienced on Sept. 11, 2001.

Moon will show students video footage from that day that will then lead into a discussion of what thoughts and feelings they might have. The next day, Moon plans to have students read secondary sources to help them launch into “historical thinking” as students develop an informed opinion based on what they read and watched on Monday.

“Overall the goal Monday is to help students get into the mind of an American who was alive at that time,” Moon said. “Tuesday we’ll have a constructive discussion about the events, about what do we know for sure, and what do we plan to do as we move forward.”

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.