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For Most Students 9/11 Is History Lesson, Not Memory

Most American adults still have visceral memories from the morning of September 11, 2001. But for most San Diego school children, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. are something they hear about in history class.


Rick Selby, History teacher at Innovation Middle School

David Peters, family psychotherapist with a private practice in Mission Valley.


Most American adults still have visceral memories from the morning of September 11, 2001. But for most San Diego school children, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. are something they hear about in history class.

— Rick Selby has been teaching history in San Diego Unified schools for 20 years. Each of his five years at Innovation Middle School in Clairemont Mesa has included a lesson about Sept. 11, 2001.

“I do something every year since it’s happened and sadly as the years progress, the kids know less and less," he said. “So before it was more a reflective piece and it’s turned into more of an educational piece. Teaching what actually happened, so they kind of have an idea that planes hit a building. But other than that – that’s kind of the basics.”

Selby starts the lesson by telling his students to take five minutes to write down the things they think they know about the day that hijackers took control off four planes, flying three of them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashing one in a field in Pennsylvania.

These eighth graders were all two or three years old on Sept. 11, 2001. And when they read the facts they've scribbled down, most have the basics mostly right.

Many mention the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers, some talk about Osama Bin Laden leading the attack, others talk about bombs.

San Diego Unified encourages teachers to talk about the events of Sept. 11 in class – but Selby thinks taking the time to do a whole class on the attacks is important, especially as kids have fewer of their own memories about them.

“It’s one of the most tragic events in our nation’s history. So I think they need to understand what happened, the impact it had on – not just New York City but the whole nation. And the world. And how it has changed things," he said. "And that’s one thing – they don’t realize how things have changed. And then when we cover the amendments later in the year and we talk about the Fourth Amendment, then it can be tied back into a lot of the security measures that we have now that we didn’t have before.”

During the lesson, Selby’s students hear about his own trip to the recently opened September 11 National Memorial and Museum in New York and watch a video that includes news footage that is still sickeningly familiar to most American adults -- images of the planes hitting each World Trade Center tower.

And then they imagine what people were feeling in the weeks and months after the attacks.

Anger, fear, sadness, depression are just some of the ideas they come up with.

Melinda Vue didn’t understand the impact seeing the ongoing news coverage must have had on people, she said.

“Before the lesson started I just knew how the twin towers fell by terrorists, but I never knew about how the news was after and how bad and devastated many people were. It was a really great shock,” she said.

Jasmine Fontenot hadn’t known there were victims outside of New York City.

“I only knew that the terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers – I didn’t know about the Pentagon,” she said.

Eduard Barnabe knows a little more than many of his classmates about the events of Sept. 11. That day also happens to be his birthday.

“Every time it comes around I feel like sad. I remember, but then I realize it’s time for rebirth and to move on," he said.

Vue and Fontenot agreed the lesson made them feel differently about the anniversary.

“It makes me feel more cautious and very sad about what happened and that we’re strong, more united and to help prevent that to happen maybe in the future,” Vie said.

“I feel more sad because we found out how many people were rescued, but it was only a little amount,” Fontenot said.

Selby hopes that this is one class the students will take to heart.

“The end, when we’ve covered what happened, is how are they going to remember 9/11 and what are they going to do?" he said. "So they have a choice of what homework assignment they’re going to do.”

Later this week Selby’s students will turn in a poem or a cartoon about what they’ve learned. Or, they can write a letter they would send to someone who lost a loved one that day.

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