This year in my classes of juniors and seniors, I will have students who were mostly not yet born or possibly were only old enough to be toddling around when the steel and concrete sky came down on September 11, 2001. 9/11 is as abstract to them as the Normandy Landing on D-Day is to the current generations of teachers who only read about it in history books.
While adults can clearly remember where they were and how they felt on the day of the 9/11 tragedies, students need a clearer picture of why they should pay tribute and memorialize those who lost their lives on that day.
The best text that I have found to read for this purpose is Rick Reilly’s “The Real New York Giants” originally published in Sports Illustrated on March 25, 2002. In this short and accessible piece, Reilly uses verb choice and images to draw a parallel between the National Public Safety League firefighters football team and the tragedy of 9/11. His sparse syntax, coupled with interviews with the surviving firefighters, makes for an emotional article that students are not soon to forget. An oral reading of this work with time for discussion could be sufficient, but if you wish to take it a step further to examine Reilly’s masterful parallels try a discussion fueled by this chart created by teachers in a summer workshop.
Poetry also commemorates 9/11. I have often taught the poem “St. Paul’s Chapel” by J. Chester Johnson. While visiting the site of George Washington’s inauguration and later the makeshift volunteer hub of the 9/11 aftermath, I found a copy of this poem on a piece of cardstock for visitors to take. More recently, I have added “The Names” by Billy Collins and “I Saw You Walking” by Deborah Garrison. This collection of September Poems from the New Yorker curates works that appeared in the New Yorker in the months following the attack.
Jonathan Foer’s 2006 work Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an excellent representation of post 9/11 literature that does not focus merely on the events of the day, but rather on the changes in individual lives that came after 2977 innocent souls were taken that day.
As high school educators, I believe that we have the responsibility to not only celebrate events but also to commemorate. Words can help students bring meaning to something that is otherwise unimaginable.
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