The best 9/11 film for grades 8-12

Ric Burns’ New York: The Documentary from PBS’ American Experience

Every fall, I watch this film… sometimes with my classes, sometimes on my own at home. In my opinion, Season 1, Episode 8 of New York: The Documentary is the best film you can show students to help them understand the facts and aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s part of the American Experience collection of documentary films from PBS.

I bought this entire set for my middle school classes a few years ago. The eighth DVD (episode 8) is called “Center of the World” and details the story of the World Trade Center, ending with the 9/11 terror attacks.

Episode 8 extends across nearly three hours, and chronicles the life of the World Trade Center complex and its star structures, the Twin Towers.

The episode takes viewers on a timeline tour.

We travel from the initial dream for the complex, as envisioned by Standard Oil heir and developer David Rockefeller, to the controversies regarding the towers’ relaxed fire-proofing codes and their seemingly banal architecture, to the exciting 1974 high-wire walk by French performer Philippe Petit. The film also comments on the towers’ pivotal role in and symbol of American capitalism around the globe, as well as, of course, their tragic demise on 9/11.

But that’s way too long for class, so I drastically edit it down to the most essential parts to support learning about the significance of 9/11.

Since Episode 8 lasts for nearly three hours, I only show these portions: 0:00 to 15:21 and then 2:05:00 to the end of the episode. This is about 67 minutes. I usually show the first excerpt at the end of one class period, and then we watch the remaining 52 minutes during the next class period. The first 15:21 segment introduces some necessary history and background before leading up to the attacks, which close episode 8.

This is a link to Episode 8 on YouTube. Order the original DVD or subscribe to PBS on Amazon for better quality.
Director Ric Burns

Ric Burns, brother of famous documentarian Ken Burns, directs the entire series, which also includes thoughtful digressions by several guest commentators who include engineers, authors and journalists, historians, urban planners, World Trade Center Association executives, architecture critics, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, among others, including the narrator David Ogden Stiers.

These commentators provide students with additional insight on the influence and significance of the towers and why terrorists may have wanted to see their destruction.

In fact, you can preview video clips from the film’s commentators at this PBS website, which also includes articles, primary sources, photos, and a timeline to supplement the documentary.

I usually show this film (before I would ever think of showing Hollywood-produced fare such as Flight 93 or World Trade Center, for example), because not only does it provide background, important details and history, it also shows the effects of the attacks on regular people coping in the midst of the life-altering event.

Read about my poetry lesson plan here that focuses on personal artifacts from Ground Zero.

It shows people gazing in disbelief at the towers, and others watching the attacks on live feeds at area TV stations. It also shows Mayor Guiliani’s team descending on the chaos minutes after the first tower was struck, as well as ordinary New Yorkers helping strangers in need.

And while the film is obviously sobering, it does conclude with hope for the future.

The subsequent cleanup efforts, reconstruction, and the eventual return to normalcy leave a life-affirming stamp on the conclusion of the film.

While this film is a documentary in the traditional sense of the genre, please know that my students have always been incredibly engaged during this film. I think that’s due to a combination of the subject matter, (kids are mostly still fascinated by 9/11) and the engaging personal stories the commentators tell.

The film is rated TV-PG.

The rating is due to the violent subject matter. In one brief moment, the film shows office workers jumping to their deaths. I warn students about this moment before I start the film and tell them it’s okay to look away, as I often do. I don’t wish to shock them about the attacks, but I do believe the gravity and importance of 9/11 has been lost on students who consider the attacks merely another long-over event relegated to their history texts.

There is also some profanity used by one of the guest commentators and by one bystander in some video footage from the day.

A photo I took of the Twin Towers on a visit to NYC in 1994. In the film, architecture critic Paul Goldberger notes, “More than any symbol in America,” the towers “said to the world not just, ‘This is America,’ but ‘This is a modern place — this is a place of the 20th century.’ And that made them a very potent target.” Insight such as this from its commentators make this film stand out among others.

Lastly, this film offers some evocative vocabulary that should spark some interesting conversations and expand students’ ideas about 9/11. Students will hear vocabulary words such as:

  • insular
  • paradoxical
  • modernity
  • hubris
  • benign
  • audacious
  • globalization
  • contradiction
  • arrogance
  • ambivalent
  • “moon shot”
  • capitalism
  • unprecedented

Any of these words would be good for vocabulary mini-lessons, such as these.

If you’re able to preview this film, I definitely would do that before showing it to your class, so you can determine whether it would be beneficial for your kids. As for my students, I believe this film is the most appropriate and meaningful film on 9/11 available that I have seen.


By the way, I use other episodes from this series to provide background for other units I teach, such as the Triangle Fire. I can’t speak highly enough of this series. Do you have a similar “must watch” film or series that you can’t imagine not having in your classroom? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

For more ELA teaching ideas, resources, and creative lessons, sign up for my newsletter by entering your email below. In return, I’ll send you this free Treasured Object Poem handout that will teach your kids to write beautiful and creative poems about their most treasured possessions.

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Published by marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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