Students consider the changing nature of terrorism, the motivations of terrorists, and the policy challenges for the United States.
- Explore the human dimension of the September 11 attacks by conducting an interview.
- Consider the benefits and limitations of using oral history to learn about the past.
- Assess their own views on September 11.
This lesson is designed to be completed over the course of two class periods—one day to prepare for the interviews and one day for students to share what they learned from their interviews and debrief as a class. Encourage students to film or record their interviews if possible.
Teaching about terrorism will require special sensitivity. Some students could have family members or friends who have been affected by terrorism. Misunderstandings about religion, including the relationship between Islam and terrorism, should be planned for. We encourage teachers to consider carefully the dynamics of their classrooms as they prepare to teach these materials. Discussions can take unexpected turns. Students may unwittingly offend each other. Teachers need to be aware of these possibilities and act to make their classrooms a safe place for learning. While we cannot offer a formula for dealing with all situations, being prepared will go a long way to helping students explore this difficult and important topic.
Remembering September 11, one for each student
Considering Oral Histories, one for each group
PART 1: Interview Preparation
Considering Oral History—Begin class with a brief discussion of oral history. What is oral history? Why is it important? What can we learn about a moment in history by asking questions of people who lived through it?
Ask students what they know about the attacks of September 11, 2001. What happened? Why are the attacks significant? How did people around the world react to the attacks? What might students learn from people who remember the attacks? For example, what different information could students learn about September 11 from: a firefighter who worked at Ground Zero in the days and weeks after the attacks? The husband of a person who lost their life in the attacks? A Muslim American soldier? An airline security official who was working at the time of the attacks? A security advisor to President George W. Bush? An Arab American doctor in the United States? A teacher in the Middle East who watched the attacks on TV? A police officer in Scranton, Pennsylvania?
Prepare for an Interview—Tell students that they will be interviewing someone they know about September 11. Distribute “Remembering September 11” and tell students to read the instructions and questions. Give students a few minutes to think about whom they would like to interview. Encourage them to think about the kind of information they could learn from the experiences and views of the person they are interviewing. Ask students to brainstorm three additional questions they want to ask. Students should write these questions on the handout.
Students should conduct their interview and complete “Remembering September 11.”
PART 2: Interview Debrief
Form Small Groups—Divide the class into groups of three or four and distribute “Considering Oral Histories.” Instruct students to share with their group what they learned from their interview and what their interviewee’s experiences and memories of September 11 were. Each group should record their answers to the questions on the handout. Encourage students that filmed or recorded their interviews to share a few minutes of the recordings with their group.
Share Conclusions—Gather the class together and call on students to discuss their group’s interviews. Did the interview subjects share any common memories, experiences, or attitudes? How did people’s experiences and views differ? Did students learn anything new about September 11 from conducting these interviews? In the years following the attacks, September 11 was a highly emotional topic for people across the country. Do students think this is still true today? Do students think that the fear of terrorism that emerged in the United States after September 11 shaped public opinion and policy making at the time (for example, the decision to embark on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)? If so, how? If not, why not? Does that fear still exist today?
Do students think that conducting interviews about individuals’ experiences is a valuable way to learn about history? What are the benefits of oral history? What are its limitations?
Reassess Student Views—Ask students to reflect on their own views about September 11. How have their attitudes toward the attacks changed over time? Have students’ opinions and perspectives on September 11 changed since hearing about someone else’s personal experience?
Ask students what other stories would be important to hear to gain a fuller understanding of September 11. Tell students that there are many written accounts and audio interviews available online in which people share their memories of and reflections on September 11. For example, StoryCorps provides a compilation of audio interviews of people who were directly affected by the attacks. “Portraits of Grief” by The New York Times is based on interviews with friends and families of victims.
Have students explore accounts of September 11 and write a short essay on how two of those stories changed students’ understanding of the event.
Note: This lesson was last updated in August 2020.
Image: Creative Commons Photos by Michael Foran