Teaching Now: Student Witnesses to History

This is a guest post from Sara Ziemnik, a World History and AP United States History teacher at Rocky River High School in Ohio and the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Institute National History Teacher of the Year.

September 11, 2002.

If you were teaching that day, you might remember feeling as I did. What do I say today? What should today’s lesson be? We were in the midst of the new “War on Terror,” and had seen the calendar change in a year full of fear and threats. My students were 16 and 17, and I remember thinking, “Should I do a lesson like it’s business as usual? Or should I do something more?” The lesson I settled on turned out to be the best idea of my career.

As the kids filed in that day for their regularly scheduled school day, I told them that today felt heavy. I saw some of them nodding in agreement. I told the students that I’ll always be able to explain to my future students what it was like to be a teacher on September 11, but I’ll never be able to tell them what it was like to be a student. Someday, my students would not remember this day (and now, of course, weren’t even born!). What if we just took today to write my future students letters? I told them I’d give them 10 points for the assignment, as I was sort of afraid that some would refuse or blow it off. Other than that, I said I would not censor their thoughts or give them any guidelines, other than to tell my future students,  “What did it feel like to be a 16 year old on September 11, 2001?”

The results blew me away. All of my classes wrote silently for almost the entire class period. Every single kid participated. Some wrote heart-wrenching stories of their family members who were first responders and the fear they still feel about what happened to first responders that day. My school has a small but vibrant community of Arab-Americans, and some kids wrote about some of the racism they or their friends faced in the days and months after the attacks. Tragically, we lost a student on September 12th at cross country practice–she had an undetected heart issue and collapsed during practice. Many of my kids wrote about that loss on top of the loss, and the fear and heartache they felt during that horrific week.

But there were stories of hope, too. Students noted the unity and patriotism that swelled throughout the United States after 9/11. They mentioned their desire to enlist in the Armed Forces or to help bring about peace in the future through their actions.

Every year, I pass these letters out to my current students. They hold them, turn them over, read them, and are in awe at this living piece of history that these letters have become. We discuss the language, the instances of fear, and the hope in these letters. One student this year told me, “I can’t believe I’m holding this in my hand!” It’s a powerful reminder that we are all living history, and all a witness to events that unfold in our history books. And, we have the power to learn from each other, and work toward peace and unity, despite our fear. I hope these letters resonate with your students, too.

September 11, 2002, letters from Ohio high school students

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