Celebrating Community Heroes: 9/11 in the Elementary Classroom
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
Let me be honest with you: Teaching my third graders about September 11th makes me a little uncomfortable. My students weren’t even born in 2001, and this historic tragedy just doesn’t seem all that relevant to their lives. On the other hand, September 11th has become a permanent part of our collective consciousness. As New York City gears up for the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, my students are inevitably curious about it. It wouldn’t be fair to my students if I didn’t help them understand 9/11 in a way that honors their intellectual curiosity, yet is appropriate for their age as well. Thank goodness for the picture book Fireboat by Maira Kalman! Here’s how I use this amazing book to discuss the facts about 9/11 and then shift into a lesson about heroes.
My Five-Step Plan for Teaching About 9/11
Step 1: Give Families a Heads-Up
A few days before I plan to teach about September 11th, I send home a letter to my students’ families, explaining that the students will be learning about the event in school. I ask the parents if they have any particular concerns about this lesson, or if there is anything I should be aware of before beginning the lesson. Here is the letter I will be sending home this year:
Step 2: Pre-Assess for Prior Knowledge
Although I tend to shy away from written pre-assessments, I feel it is appropriate here. I need to know how much background knowledge my students have about 9/11; however, I don’t really want a particularly knowledgeable student to “share too much” with other students, beyond what they are ready to handle. Here is the pre-assessment organizer I use:
Step 3: Read Aloud: The Fireboat, The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey
As I mentioned, I love this book! Kalman writes the “biography” of the John J. Harvey, a fireboat that was built in 1931 to fight fires on the NYC piers. By 1995, the city had changed: “The Twin Towers were now the tallest buildings in New York City,” and fireboats had outlived their purpose. A group of friends decide to rescue the John J. Harvey from a junkyard fate. It was used to host neighborhood parties until it was called upon to help fight the blazing fires of September 11th.
I like how Maira Kalman uses illustrations to convey an appropriate mood and just enough information about the events of that day. There’s an image of two planes flying towards the Twin Towers, and another illustration of the Towers exploding. The rest of the book is about the mobilization of the fireboat and the other heroes of 9/11.
Kalman doesn’t discuss the reasons behind 9/11, which I appreciate. Based on my students’ questions and their pre-assessments, I will lead a discussion after we read the book to clarify what they know about the event and to address questions that arise during the reading of the book. I make sure to point out that when terrible things happen in the world, there are always helpers rushing forward to give aid. I then connect this to our school’s aid initiatives, so my students can feel empowered as heroes. This year, I’ll remind the students about how our school worked together to raise money for the Japanese people after the tsunami last year.
Step 4: Thanking a Local Hero
There are many ways to teach about heroes (just Google it and you’ll be swamped), but I tend to keep it pretty simple. We create two charts together -– one listing the heroes in our community, and one listing the character traits of a hero. This does double duty as vocabulary and character development.
Then I have my students write thank-you cards to the firefighters at our local fire station. I use this as an opportunity to review the parts of a letter, and my students enjoy this authentic purpose for writing. Of course you can have your students write cards to any local hero, from your school crossing guard to local hospital workers.
Step 5: Let’s Be Heroes! Helping Others in Need
During an address on August 27, President Obama urged Americans to commemorate September 11th with acts of kindness and volunteerism. Each year, my students plan a service project as an offshoot of our 9/11 activities. This year, several of my students are very concerned about the famine in East Africa, so we are going to raise money to donate to an organization working to provide food for children. We are going to use the harvest from our school garden to host a small “farm market” for my students’ families, with proceeds going to our chosen cause. Last year my students organized a toiletry drive, collecting 20 bags of hotel toiletries to donate to a local food pantry. Find a cause that interests your students and hand them the reins.
More Resources About the John J. Harvey Fireboat
- New York City teachers, you can take your class to visit the John J. Harvey at Pier 66 on the North (Hudson) River at 27th Street! Visit the Fireboat website for more information. (The John J. Harvey is only a few blocks from my school, so it’s our first walking trip of the year for my class.)
- Here is a downloadable teaching guide for the book Fireboat.
- You may want to share this video clip with your students so that they can envision the John J. Harvey in action.
- The 9/11 Memorial offers several thematic teaching guides and helpful information about how to talk about 9/11 with children.
How are you planning on teaching about September 11th in your classroom? Please share your ideas, questions, and comments!