Sept. 11 as history: Teaching a new generation

BALLWIN — Fourth grade teacher Caroline Ayers was the same age as her current students, sitting in the same classroom at Henry Elementary School, when the intercom crackled the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with unthinkable news.

Ayers said she can’t recall much else from that day, but she does remember the camaraderie of the class, their impromptu kickball games and feeling “safe and cared for” that year by her teacher, Tom Koerner.

It’s what she wants for her own students as she prepares the 9/11 anniversary lesson developed by Parkway School District administrators.

“I want to make sure all these kids understand the significance of the day, why we have these memorials,” Ayers said. “I’m going to be paying close attention to body language, facial expressions. I don’t want to upset them, but want them to understand.”

A whole generation has been born since 9/11. Current events have now become history. How do schools teach about the terrorist attacks 20 years later?

Mostly by helping kids understand that “while we can’t control that terrible things happen in the world, we can control the way we respond to them,” says Jennifer Lagasse, assistant director of education programs at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.

Younger kids want to know about firefighters and other first responders, and also about the dogs that helped look for survivors. Kids in middle and high school “want to know why the attacks happened, why the South Tower fell first when it was hit second, and they’re trying to make sense of what happened,” Lagasse says.

Fifth- and sixth-graders at the Wilson School in Clayton interviewed their family members and heard the stories of people with personal experiences of the day. On Wednesday, they walked to Art Hill to read names and walk through the Flags of Valor exhibit.

Several schools, including Northwest High in Cedar Hill and Bernard Middle in Mehlville, host annual breakfasts for first responders.

At least 70 schools in Missouri and 180 in Illinois will participate Friday in the free Anniversary in the Schools webinar from the museum. Speakers include family members of people killed in the attacks and first responders from New York City and Pennsylvania.

In the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, schools will have a moment of silence, group discussions led by a teacher who was a student in the district on 9/11 and a virtual field trip through the museum.

In Parkway, all teachers around 9 a.m. Friday will present a timeline of the events with discussion prompts. Students will watch a video with perspectives from Ayers on what it was like as a Parkway elementary student, plus first responders, military servicemembers and Muslim Americans from the community.

The focus will be on “hope, unity and purpose,” said curriculum coordinator Jennifer Abdel-Azim, who lived in New York City 20 years ago.

“Explaining this to a 6-year-old is challenging,” Abdel-Azim said. “We had this devastating moment, we came together, and now it’s a day of service. From this horrific event comes something positive.”

Abdel-Azim watched the twin towers fall from her classroom window at P.S. 297 in Brooklyn, where she taught fifth grade at the time.

“By 10:30 the air was filled by smoke even in Brooklyn. It was just eerily quiet, it was like the city was standing still,” she said. “I just remember getting my kids away from the windows.”

All the schools went on lockdown, and Abdel-Azim said she kept her students busy with board games and a dance off.

“I had to make sure I took care of them,” she said. “It was very possible that some of their parents weren’t going to make it back to pick them up at school.”

All the parents eventually came, and Abdel-Azim drove several colleagues home around 8 p.m. that night.

“The sacrifices that teachers make, they’re real,” she said. “When we come to school and we show up to teach your children, we take that role very seriously. It’s critical that our students feel safe.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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