Joey Moore remembers the knock on the door that interrupted his class one Tuesday morning in September, 15 years ago.
The U.S. history teacher at York Comprehensive High School had a classroom full of freshmen at York Junior High School at the time, when a teacher across the hall told him to turn on his television.
“Something’s going on in New York,” he recalled her saying, “something about a plane and the World Trade Center.”
Moore said he turned on the classroom TV, and he and his class watched as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded. While they were watching a live newscast of the crash that had just happened at the North Tower of the World Trade Center, a plane crashed into the South Tower.
“Every jaw dropped,” he said. “We’re trying to process — did we just see what we thought we saw?”
Tracy Warren, another U.S. history teacher at York, was teaching seventh grade at the time. She remembers trying to hold it together to still answer her students’ questions as they watched the horror unfold on TV.
I try to get them to see how one event is affecting their lives today. They know the terms, ‘We’re at war with terrorism’ – that kind of started it.
Joey Moore, history teacher at York Comprehensive High School
“Kids are asking, ‘Is that someone jumping out of a window?’ ” she said, referring to the people trapped in the World Trade Center who jumped to their deaths. “You really don’t know as it’s happening. I had to walk seventh graders through that.”
The attack left nearly 3,000 people dead and thousands more injured — images of that day are still fresh to anyone who was old enough to grasp what was happening. Today, however, history teachers are trying to make 9/11 relevant and personal to people who were either very young or not even born when it happened.
“The high school freshmen this year are going to be the first class that was born after the events that took place,” said Jimmy Fitzpatrick, an AP U.S. history teacher at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill. “It’s transitioned from kind of a personal narrative … to more of an academic study. We have somewhat been removed from the event now that we’re 15 years on, so we can see some of the cause and effect of the event.”
Schools do a good job of reminding students each year of the events of 9/11, Fitzpatrick said, noting Thursday’s ceremony outside Nation Ford.
In the classroom, American history teachers must follow a sequence required by state standards and end-of-course testing, so 9/11 won’t appear in lesson plans until the end of the year, when classes are studying present-day affairs.
“It’s definitely gotten to the point, even 15 years on, that we can talk about it in its larger historic context,” Fitzpatrick said. “How it connects to the end of the Cold War and that tumultuous time period, trying to reorder the power dynamic in the world and how America was impacted after the events — the War on Terror, the fighting that’s been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Personal narratives from people who witnessed events like 9/11 are helpful to children who either didn’t witness it or were too young to understand, Fitzpatrick said, especially as fewer and fewer students today have any recollection of the attacks.
One method that Warren says helps students learn is interviewing their parents or other adult family members about what 9/11 was like for them.
“I have them talk to their parents about what they remember seeing, how they felt and what the aftermath of it was like, so they can get that personal connection to it,” she said. “It’s creating a relationship with that event, making it matter to the kids. We have to draw a connection to it to make it personal.”
Even though it’s not in the lesson plan until later in the year, Warren said she’ll talk with her students Monday about the events of 9/11.
A lot of the kids I have today ... they haven’t seen those images. They haven’t seen the plane going into the building.
Tracy Warren, history teacher at York Comprehensive High School
Sitting in her classroom is a scaled model depicting the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings on 9/11, with a toy plane affixed to the side of the North Tower, appearing to crash into the building.
Senior Nick Novak built the model for an AP U.S. history class last year as part of a project in which students had to build something representative of their assigned decade, and Novak was assigned the 2000s.
Even though Novak couldn’t understand what was happening on Sept. 11, he remembers watching the coverage with his grandmother as a 3-year-old.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand what it was about,” he said. “A few years later they mentioned it again on another anniversary. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about.’”
Many teachers play videos of the news coverage of the attacks. Warren has newspapers from the day after the attacks and a copy of one from the 10-year anniversary, preserved in plastic so she can give students a visual aid.
“A lot of the kids I have today ... they haven’t seen those images,” Warren said. “They haven’t seen the plane going into the building. To see their faces – ‘Whoa!’ – they’re kind of shocked by that.”
Moore says it’s not as shocking to some students today. In his classes on Friday, he played a short video from Good Morning America on the day of the attacks, with the video showing what was making the news that morning and then cutting to the live coverage of the attacks. One student appeared to chuckle during the clip, he said.
“I had to redirect – ‘Is something funny about it? This is not a movie; it’s the real deal,’” he said. “And of course, he dialed it back and started watching it.”
Moore said he likes to frame the events of that day as a discussion of cause and effect, so students can grasp how the attacks impact their life, explaining to them why the lines at airport security are so long, why they get searched before going into large sporting events or stadiums and how it’s tied to 9/11.
“It really changed America forever,” he said. “I try to get them to see how one event is affecting their lives today. They know the terms, ‘We’re at war with terrorism’ – that kind of started it.”
Some students don’t understand the background that led up to 9/11, Moore said. So he tries to help them connect the dots between what happened in the years before that day, what happened during the attacks and how the events of that day have shaped the way things are today.
“To understand where your country’s going or where it is right now, you have to understand where it’s been,” he said. “Things that happened 150 years ago still have a bearing and effect on this nation. This is going to be one of those events that’s always going to have a bearing and effect on this country.”