The stories the artifacts tell: my new 9/11 lesson plan

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Artifacts connect the 9/11 attacks to the loss of innocent human life

I believe in teaching students about the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems that up until a few years ago, students had an intrinsic desire to understand it better. Still, it seems that their desire to learn about 9/11 is waning, especially among high school students.

My current juniors and seniors were born in 2001 and 2002, and they tell me they have “been taught” about Sept. 11 every year for as long as they can remember. As a result, they feel they know all they need to know about this world-changing event.

But they don’t.

Yes, they’ve watched movies and documentaries galore that show (yet again) the airplanes crashing into the towers. They’ve seen photographs of Ground Zero. They know about Afghanistan.

But they may not know about…

  • a pair of shoes found in the rubble
  • a charred jewelry box found buildings away in a bank vault
  • a crumpled wallet

Simply put, students haven’t heard the stories the artifacts tell.

In 2018, I discovered a few sources for photographs of artifacts from Ground Zero. One of these websites was the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Click here to go to the museum’s Memo Blog where you can search for artifacts.

By the way, here’s an idea that sparked as I searched online to write this post. Another effective way to connect the tragedy to the loss of life might be to focus on the missing persons signs that family members and friends posted around the city in the days immediately following the attack. Here’s a source for missing persons posters from New York magazine.

Other sources included commemorative articles about the attacks in New York magazine and The New York Times. Last year, when I discovered these artifacts, I planned on using them in a new activity; however, that never transpired. I kept the artifacts photos, however, since I knew I could use them in the future whenever I figured out what I wanted to do with them in a learning unit. Besides that, color printing is so costly that I didn’t want to waste them.

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My first-hour juniors work in the lab on their poems and one-word summaries.

This year, I finally was able to incorporate the photos into a four-day unit on 9/11 that I hoped would teach students about the tragedy beyond dates, place names, and facts. I hoped to show students a more personal side of the tragedy. That is, after all, what makes the attacks so devastating. Beyond the ferocity and horror of the crashing towers —and the Pentagon and Flight 93— was the shocking comprehension of the violent loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives.

I feel that young people fail to grasp the human factor in the attacks… through no fault of their own.

So with that in mind, I created this lesson plan and activity that’s intended to help students see 9/11 in a new light.

Here’s a rundown of my new 9/11 Artifact Project.

First, before I ever even said the word “artifact,”  I assigned a 9/11-themed Article of the Week assignment. AOWs are weekly assignments that my students receive every Tuesday; they’re due the following Tuesday. These assignments are considered homework and are fashioned after AOW assignments created by Kelly Gallagher.

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This 9/11 AOW featured a 2016 USA Today article entitled “Fifteen Years Later: The Questions that Remain in Our Minds…15 Years After 9/11.” Even though this article is three years old, it’s the best one I’ve found for containing a wealth of information in a concise length. In the assignment, students read the article and then annotate it with their own  thoughts and observations. Students then respond to the writing prompt that asks them to reflect on and explain what they learned from reading the article.

Based on our discussions after reading aloud the article, it seemed that most, if not all,  students learned from this AOW. Most students had no previous knowledge about the 1993 truck bombing attempt. Some were unaware of Flight 93, which was eventually crashed by the passengers into a field in Shanksville, Pa. None had heard of the bombings and attacks that preceded the World Trade Center attacks, such as the USS Cole attack in 2000, and the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

This AOW assignment was turned in the day we started the 9/11 Artifact Project, so students would have the article’s information in the back of their minds as they began to delve deeper into the project.

After turning in their AOW assignment, I asked students to pick up a photo of an artifact from a table where I had scattered 25 photos. The artifacts included keys, shoes, firefighter helmets, jewelry, mangled pieces of metal from one of the airplanes, and other objects. I didn’t tell students where the images were from, but they quickly deduced that since it was September 10, that the images must have something to do with the terror attacks that would be commemorated the next day.

After picking up their image, I asked students to simply write a paragraph to describe the object. They could describe the artifact, discuss who might have owned it, and what it might have symbolized to its owner. Here’s one of those paragraphs:

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A student’s paragraph describing the artifact, work gloves, they had chosen from the table.

After we wrote these low-stakes paragraphs, I passed out some reading material. I read aloud the Author’s Note to the incredible book 102 Minutes by Kevin Flynn and Mark Dwyer.

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This book contains the stories of 367 people who survived the destruction of the towers. It contains eye-witness accounts of exactly what unfolded during the 102 minutes that transpired between the strike and the collapse of the north tower.

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My own photo from a trip to NYC in 1997.

After reading the Author’s Note, I asked students to get into groups of four. In their groups, they read either the first half or the second half of the Prologue. They could read their pages however they wished: one student could read the entire excerpt, students could take turns… it was their choice how they could complete it. They each had their own copy of the text so they could annotate it as they read. I also passed out sticky notes and asked them to write down three to four new words from the reading (students are now using one of the words in a literary analysis assignment that began the next week).

What came next? A one-word summary of the excerpt. I asked students to choose one word to summarize their excerpt and then write a paragraph  defending their choice of that word.  The only requirement was that the summary include evidence from the text followed by a sentence or two of interpretation. Students wrote these summaries by hand on notebook paper in the classroom; they typed them on computers later in the week in the computer lab.

After students had finished their one-word summaries, we took a break from reading and writing and instead did a quick speaking and listening activity. I passed out to students slips of paper that contained descriptions of their respective artifacts. Some of the descriptions were lengthy; some were just a sentence or so.

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One by one, we went around the room and each student walked to the document camera, projected their artifact onto the screen, and then read their description to the class. Everything from office keys, to crumpled police car hoods, to shoes were shown.

Here are some of those artifacts along with descriptions:

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With this project, I thought it would be interesting to experiment with linking different genres, so I asked students to bear with me and try something new. Here’s what I asked them to do: take the word that they chose to summarize the 102 Minutes Prologue and use that word to create an acrostic poem about their 9/11 artifact. The poem would also include the quote or a phrase from the quote they used as evidence in their summary.

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Using a word from the text to dictate the direction of the poem would, I hoped, provide a clear link between the disaster and a specific person involved in the attacks in some way, whether they were a World Trade Center worker or an emergency responder.

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Since my goal was to link the atrocity to a single human life, I thought connecting the 102 Minutes text to a personal artifact would be a valuable task. 

It seemed somewhat strange to students at first to make their word from the text be the centerpiece of their poem, but once they had the idea firmly in their minds, they seemed to see the connection to being made.

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I also provided them my own example of a poem and a summary for them to reference, which I showed via the document camera. Here’s the instruction sheet I made and then my example poem and summary on the back side:

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In reflection, I think my first “go” at this activity was successful. When we finished, I assembled all the materials and put them into a three-ring binder for safe-keeping for next year. I placed each artifact photo and its description into its own plastic page protector so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle, as well as samples from students to use as mentor texts for next year.

Here are a few samples from students:

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As for receiving feedback from students regarding this project… I did give each student a three question half-sheet for them to fill out at the conclusion of the project.  I gained a few ideas for how to improve the project for next time, such as…

  • Allow more time for the project.
  • Do either the poem only or the one-word summary only. It became confusing for some.
  • Slow the speed of the lesson down. (And I’ll admit, on new activities, it seems I never allot enough time.)
  • Possibly add a video to the project. In my previous position, my eighth-graders watched the New York: The Documentary at the conclusion of a unit on the attacks. Because my students at my new school had told me they were studying 9/11 in their history and/or government classes, I opted not to watch one this year. Perhaps next.

In addition, most students responded that they now know more about 9/11 than they did previously. And sure, a few don’t think that they gained any new knowledge about the attacks.  Here are a few responses I received back from my half-sheet lesson evaluation.

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By the way, my students really put a lot of thought into these little evaluation half-sheets. I was so surprised that they didn’t just rush through them or put “idk”  in the blanks. They really took their time and I’m thankful for that.

To sum it up, I will definitely do this project again with my students next year. I think my first attempt at it was successful based on the connections my students made between the text, which resulted in a product that combined non-fiction summary writing with poetry.

Sure, there are some modifications to be made, but that’s a given with any lesson plan… new or tried-and-true.

Perhaps most importantly, I believe putting the human element into the story of 9/11 captures students’ attention. Viewing a crumpled and nearly destroyed employee i.d. card adds a visceral element to the sterile facts, dates, and statistics that can all too often dominate a textbook study of a historical event.

If, in the end, that’s all this lesson plan accomplished, I’m fine with that.

Standards Alignment
This four-day unit instructed in the following Missouri Learning Standards:
Reading Informational Text 1D: Explain two or more central/main ideas in a text, analyze their development throughout the text, and relate the central ideas to human nature and the world; provide an objective and concise summary of the text; 
Reading Informational Text 3D: Synthesize information from two or more texts about similar ideas/topics to articulate the complexity of the issue.
Writing 2A: Follow a writing process to produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, style, and voice are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience; self-select and blend (when appropriate) previously learned narrative, expository, and argumentative writing techniques. 
Writing 3A: c. Conventions of standard English and usage: Demonstrate a command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage, including spelling and punctuation; d. Use a variety of appropriate transitions to clarify relationships, connect ideas and claims, and signal time shifts; e. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
Speaking and Listening 2A: Speak audibly and to the point, using conventions of language as appropriate to task, purpose, and audience when presenting including
fluent and clear articulation, strategically varying volume, pitch, and pace to consistently engage listeners.

Thanks for reading again this week! Since this is the first time I’ve done this activity with students, I know there are so many ways to improve on this lesson plan for next year. Between my notes in this post, my three-ring binder full of materials, and your feedback and ideas, I can no doubt improve upon it for next time. Feel free to leave and comment, and then follow my blog to keep in touch.

A Poetry Project that Draws Connections Between the Fires at Triangle Waist Co. and World Trade Center

The Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?

 

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My 8th-graders evaluate poetry projects on the final day to choose the six projects that most effectively met the criteria of the assignment.

Based on those essential questions (developed with help from our school’s art teacher, Joan Edgmon, by the way), I’m sure that some may think I’ve forgotten that I teach Language Arts. They may even wonder if I’m actually a history teacher in disguise. But to that, I would answer:  Actually, I just see value in using historical events for writing topics because they…

  • 1) teach kids about the world and broadens their background knowledge.
  • 2) provide relevancy to writing and connect school with the outside world.
  • 3) reveal to kids that remembering past tragedies can help prevent their reoccurrence.

Connecting the Triangle Waist Co. fire, the most tragic industrial workplace fire in U.S. history until the World Trade Center (WTC)  fires on Sept. 11, is one study we delved into again this fall like we do every year in my 8th-grade classes. However, this year, I designed this poetry project to help students creatively explore the connections between these two events. In the past, I’ve assigned a written essay to explore these connections, but this year, with the DAR American History Essay Contest right around the corner, I wanted to give the kids more variety with a non-essay genre: free verse poetry.

Read this post to get some background on my Triangle Fire & World Trade Center unit. In short, skyscraper building codes that had been developed in response to the 1911 Triangle Fire were relaxed during the early design of the World Trade Center towers in the 1960s. These building code changes (including a reduction in the required numbers of emergency stairwells, permission to cluster elevators in central areas, and the absence of brick masonry requirements, plus others) likely contributed to the death toll on Sept. 11, 2001. 

The rest of today’s post focuses on this culminating free verse poetry project I tried for the first time with students this year. The results were not perfect; I already know a few things I need to change for next year. However, I was pleased with the thinking my students engaged in, and I was also pleased with the creativity they showed in producing the visual elements of this assignment.

Here were the requirements for the poetry project:

Triangle Fire and World Trade Center Fires

POETRY PROJECT

  1. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the Triangle Fire.
  2. Write a free verse (non-rhyming) poem about the WTC fires.
  3. Juxtapose the two poems on construction paper or some other paper.
  4. Include a “gallery label.” See below for details.

Requirements for the project:

  • Each poem should be at least ten lines long.
  • Each poem should give this information: date, number of deaths, causes of death, lessons learned (Triangle reforms & WTC recommendations)
  • Each poem’s shape or appearance should remind us of the specific building the fire occurred in. Ideas: line for each floor? Arrange the lines to represent flames?
  • Each poem should also mention a lesson learned from the fire. What positive element can you add? The reforms made as a result of the fires?
  • The poems should “allude” to each other. There are a few ways one could do this…
    •  Have your Triangle poem mention somehow the World Trade Center or vice versa.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line appears in both poems.
    • Make both poems share a line, i.e. the same line literally connects the two poems.
  • Write a gallery label that will appear alongside your juxtaposed poems.
  • The gallery card needs to explain the two fires, relate how your poems address the two fires. You may want to also explain: how the two fires are connected historically, what we can learn from the tragedies to ensure that history does not repeat itself in this way again.
  • Get creative! Need art supplies? Let me know what I need to bring.

I passed out a handout that listed all the requirements at the beginning of the project. Then we decided that when we finished it would be fun to post all the completed projects in my room in “gallery walk style” so students could vote on the top six, which would then be posted in the hallway. The gallery walk took nearly a full class period because they were so interested in doing a good job. I changed the selection of poems to post in the hallway by removing one that, while being in the students’ top six, didn’t express any lessons learned from the tragedies. Plus, I included a couple more projects that showed strong effort.

Here are some of the most effective projects. Even though the poems were the most important part of this assignment, the visual elements also had a job to do, which was to convey meaning to the poetry. Some of the photos have been cropped so the poetry can be more easily read.

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One thing I know I’ll change for next year is to require that no airplanes appear in the projects. While I’m glad that students understand what ultimately caused the disaster that took so many lives, the unit was intended to focus on how builders and developers literally forgot many of the fire-prevention lessons learned from Triangle Fire.

Finally, it’s always good to focus on the Essential Questions: How can history inform public policy? How do people prevent past tragedies from reoccurring?


Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment if I’ve left out some key point— or if you spot a typo! I wrote this up fairly quickly over the weekend, and feel like there’s got to be a grammar issue or two somewhere in here. I’ll update this post as I think of other ideas or tips to include. Have a great week! 

Click here for a post about my 9/11 resources.

Click here for my main Triangle Fire unit.

Click here about a field trip we took this fall to remember 9/11.

 

Our field trip to a local 9/11 memorial

Plus: a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11

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On Wednesday, Sept. 12, I took my eighth-grade students to a local college to view the 9/11 memorial there. I have wanted to do this for a couple of years and finally, this year the stars aligned: my lesson planning fell into place, a few phone calls were made, permission slips were returned, and it happened.

My co-teacher next door and I both share classes, and as a result, we have a possible 100 minutes available to take short outings around our town. Local field trips are actually something we should take more advantage of because I think it really helps kids to get out into the community and experience what it offers.

Viewing the local memorial’ actual steel column from a building destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001 is important and helps to make the terror attacks a tangible reality for kids. Since they weren’t even born yet in 2001, I get the feeling from talking with them that 9/11 is an event relegated to the distant past, (as hard as that might be for older adults to believe!).

Fortunately, middle school kids are VERY interested in the attacks, however. They want to learn about them and understand the gravity of the event.  Read this post to see how I cover 9/11 in my language arts classes.

Here are a few things my students didn’t know about 9/11 prior to our discussions:

  • One student thought that only one plane was involved.
  • They didn’t know the hijacked planes were carrying passengers; they thought the hijackers were flying their own empty planes.
  • A few didn’t know that radical Islam was the religion observed by the hijackers.
  • They didn’t know that people from all over the world worked in the World Trade Center towers.
  • They didn’t know about the bombing of the Pentagon or Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
  • They had no idea the cleanup lasted for nine months.
  • They didn’t know that buildings in addition to the Twin Towers were damaged and/or required demolition.
  • They didn’t know anything about the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
  • They didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was.

This week, kids will continue to read about the 9/11 attacks and apply what they learn to a few writing projects. I’ll update you on those activities soon.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment with your own 9/11 teaching ideas and projects. I’d love to hear what you do in your classroom.

Top Resources that I Use to Teach 9/11

It’s never too early to plan to “never forget.”

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The new One World Trade Center stands tall in lower Manhattan. While remembering the tragedy and the memories of those lives lost, it’s also important to  focus on the resiliency of the United States and New York City, in particular. Photo by Dean Rose on Unsplash

I get it. The school year has just ended and the last thing you may want to think about right now is what you will be doing in September in your classes. However, discussing 9/11 effectively deserves forethought and preparation to match the motivation and curiosity that students bring to the table.

Despite this motivation, for many students  9/11 is as remote for them as Kennedy’s assassination was to me (I was born two years later JFK was killed).  Students may not be aware that 9/11 was an international event with numerous long-lasting effects: changes in security, warfare, immigration, architecture, travel. So it’s a given that 9/11 should be covered, but let’s be honest, the anniversary of the horrible event arrives so quickly after the school year starts that one really needs to have one’s plan in place to present and discuss the terror attacks adequately.

That being said, please know this: I am no expert on September 11 or how to present it to students. However, I thought I’d share with you a few resources I keep in my classroom.

Books:

Understanding September 11 by Mitch Frank, is arranged into chapters entitled with questions such as Who were the hijackers? and Why did we go after Afghanistan? understandingPublished in 2002, the book has become outdated in some ways; it was published before bin Laden was killed, for example. Its frank discussions about the most basic aspects of the attacks and terrorism in general are still important.

With Their Eyes: The View from a High School at Ground Zero edited by Annie Thoms, is a collection of monologues written by students who attended nearby Stuyvesant High School at the time of the tragedy. eyesNote: some poems contain profanity, so read accordingly.

A Place of Remembrance, The Official Book of the National September 11 Memorial by Allison Blais and Lynn Rasic, focuses on the memorial and museum complex built to commemorate the tragedy. placePublished by National Geographic, the book contains many photos of artifacts, profiles of those involved with the museum project, and information about the memorial plaza design as well. I only have two copies of the 2011 edition of the book in my room. It is mainly used individually by students who want to know more. Also: an updated 2015 edition is available, but I have not used it.

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The Building of Manhattan by Donald Mackay has a section about the World Trade Center’s history, including construction challenges, size, and its occupants. Mackay’s distinctive pen and ink illustrations give this book broad appeal

 

 

102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102Choose carefully what you would like to read to your students as this book includes first-person accounts from survivors. Excerpts of this book reveal the terror of those who survived the tower attacks.

“Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, The World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.” This is actually a book review by Gregory Stein of two books, David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, and 102 Minutes. The review discusses the two books individually, connects them with a discussion on “The Ebb and Flow of Building Codes,” and concludes with a discussion of safety and security and their costs and risks. “It is up to us to decide how much we are willing to pay to live in a sensibly safer world,” Stein writes. This book review prompts some meaty discussions with my students. By invoking the Triangle Fire, it brings up the idea of how the passage of time causes us to forget what we have learned from our previous mistakes.

To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski: I’ve used bits and pieces of this book on numerous occasions and it ties in with my 9/11 unit because it contains excerpts from The Hammurabi Code, which is discussed in the above book review.

DVDs:

The Walk: The Triumphant True Story  directed by Robert Zemeckis, this feature film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and tells the story of Philippe Petit, the high wire artist who walked between the two towers in 1974. Just as Petit helped New Yorkers appreciate and grow to love the towers, this movie helps students connect to the towers and the tragedy that later happened.

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What I value about this film is that it enables students to experience and personally connect with the towers — and the people who lived and worked there — through shots of the exteriors, lobbies, offices, elevators, receiving areas, the North Tower observation deck, and Austin Tobin Plaza.

My kids LOVE this movie. I show it to my sixth-graders at the end of the year. It’s a good way to introduce students to the Twin Towers and city without the context of 9/11.  You cannot go wrong with showing this film. My students always ask to watch it again! The film is rated PG; there are three to four uses of profanity. Length: 123 minutes.

“The Center of the World,” Episode 8 of New York: The Documentary: Every year, we watch a 100-minute excerpt from “The Center of the World,” the last disc in the eight-DVD series “New York: The Documentary.” It’s directed by Ric Burns of Steeplechase Films. Burns is the brother of the famed documentarian Ken Burns.

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My eighth-graders are riveted to every minute of this important film. The documentary eloquently conveys the horror of the day, including the responses of New York City, the nation, and the world.  Even though it has a TV-PG rating (and therefore doesn’t require a permission slip, per my school’s policy), I send a permission slip home anyway for parents to sign. The movie has some disturbing scenes, including people jumping from the towers.

The film also recognizes that, although our collective soul was irrevocably altered in the span of a few hours, the United States of America will prevail. It’s my hope that this excellent film relates better than I can that September 11 is relevant and important, not merely “historical”… in the distant past of my students’ minds. Read this post from my sister blog for more on this idea.

There you have it. These are the various materials I use to engage my students in writing about 9/11. Even though I use these every year, I am always on the lookout for new resources. If and when I find any additional ideas, I’ll write another post to let you know.

With each passing year, I feel that the memories of this horrible day are fading more and more into the distant past. It’s important that we keep alive the memory of what was lost on that day.


Thanks for reading. If you have a minute, leave a comment to share your own ideas and resources.