11 September 2013

12 Years

The stories have been shared around the internet all day -- 12 years ago I was . . .

Beginning my teaching career, still in graduate school, working in an elementary school library.  I don't remember how I first heard about the attack, probably through a co-worker who had heard it from someone from outside the school.  Because they didn't want the TV's on in the classrooms, teachers came into the library to watch the news when they had a few minutes away from their students.  I caught snippets of the reports throughout the day, then went home to sit in front of the television and try to make sense of what was going on.

12 years later it still does not make sense.  And teachers have the unenviable task of taking an event like 9/11 and putting it into a context that our students will understand, whether they are 5 or 15.  I remember having conversations with classes one year after the attack and trying to prepare the students for what they might see on TV that night as the nation reflected back on how America had dealt with and been changed by what happened that morning.  I remember hoping and praying that their parents would be present to help them process what they heard and saw.

Now I teach children for whom 9/11 is an unreal event -- they were not born when it occurred so for them it is distant history.  But as a teacher I still have a responsibility to help them process what they hear and see and to help them make sense of this part of our history.  I do that through books.

I have used a handful of stories in the past twelve years to teach about 9/11.  These are some of my favorites.

Fireboat by Maira Kalman I mentioned already when I reflected on our trip to NYC this summer and our visit to the 9/11 Memorial.  This book was the topic of much discussion among my colleagues when it was first published in 2002.  The image of the planes flying into the towers, even as a painting, was thought to possibly be too traumatic for children to see so soon after the attack.  At that time the actual video and images were still shown on TV with regularity.  It was felt by some that children did not need to see it depicted in a picture book.  I used it anyway with my older students.  I believed that if they might see it on TV, possibly without an adult with whom to talk about the image, then seeing it painted in a book I shared with them would certainly not be any more traumatic.  And the story of the crew who took this little boat to fight the fires caused by the falling towers is a lesson in bravery that the students needed to hear.

New York's Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne is also one that I have used many times around the anniversary of the attacks.  It is the retelling of a legendary firefighter who worked in New York in the 1840's.  His feats of heroism had the people singing his praises until he disappeared in a hotel fire.  Until 9/11, this was just another entertaining American tall-tale.  The story gained new meaning, however, in the aftermath.  Osborne included an historical note about the legend and dedicated the book to the 343 New York City firefighters lost that day.

A newer book that is a lovely and touching tribute is 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy.  In 2001 a young man from Kenya was studying in America.  After the attacks, he returned home and told the story of what he had seen and experienced.  His people, the Maasai, dedicated a gift of 14 cows to the people of America to show their support and honor their sacrifices.  This book was published a decade after the attacks and reminds readers that 9/11 did not just happen to America.  It affected the whole world and we have many brothers and sisters who felt our pain.

Just so you know, I cannot read any of these books without crying.  Crying in front of my students is not my preferred presentation style, but every now and then I like to let them know that I am human.  These books touch my heart and I think my emotional connection with the stories helps the students understand the impact of an event that they may not internalize the significance of, but that has had a profound effect on their lives.

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