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.

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.