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Teaching kindergarten-through-12th-grade students about the September 11 attacks has always been difficult, but with the 20th anniversary this weekend, time has brought a new challenge. Students today have no memories of 9/11 because none of them were alive. NPR's Cory Turner has the story of how educators are approaching 9/11 with a new generation.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Teacher Brandon Graves in Louisville, Ky., says when he talks about 9/11 with his elementary school students, he often tells them where he was that day - in Washington, D.C., attending Howard University, where he could smell the smoke from the Pentagon.
BRANDON GRAVES: I liken it to when I was that age, my parents and the adults around me would talk about, you know, where they were when Martin Luther King got killed.
TURNER: What else can schools and families do when talking about 9/11 with kids for whom it is truly just history? Well, my colleague Sarah McCammon and I put that question to educators and experts, and they told us a few things. First and foremost, keep it age-appropriate. The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility offers several 9/11 lesson plans and suggests through second grade, kids may be too young to make sense of the attacks. For kids in third through fifth grade, though, Morningside recommends a brief, fact-based account of the day, including that nearly 3,000 people were killed. Now, Brandon Graves says that can be hard for kids to hear.
GRAVES: They're not used to that. They're used to stories geared towards kids, and so there's a happy ending.
TALA MANASSAH: We advise teachers to be bold and be courageous in meeting the kids where they're at.
TURNER: Tala Manassah with the Morningside Center says it's OK if kids feel uncomfortable as long as they still feel safe.
MANASSAH: An education system that is functioning properly in a democratic society has to make room for discomfort. Sometimes the edges of our learning happen when we are uncomfortable.
TURNER: Several educators say this extends to how they answer two very hard questions that kids have always asked - who would do this, and why? In response to the who, Emily Gardner, an elementary school librarian in Texas, says it's important to be clear and specific.
EMILY GARDNER: We're very careful to answer that question that it's al-Qaida. It's a terrorist organization. It's not Muslims. It's not people from a certain country.
TURNER: As for the why someone would do this? Brandon Graves says...
GRAVES: I think it is so important for educators, adults to be able to sit with a child and say, I don't know.
TURNER: Graves worked with the group Global Game Changers to develop lessons around 9/11. Jan Helson, the group's co-founder, says it's important to follow that I don't know with...
JAN HELSON: But what we do know is that really good people stood up to help us overcome those bad things.
TURNER: That's why many of the school materials created by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York feature the stories of first responders who ran towards danger that day. It's also important for kids to not just look for the helpers but to feel like they, too, can help.
GARDNER: We give students an opportunity to respond and to take action.
TURNER: Again, librarian Emily Gardner.
GARDNER: Our art teacher at the time worked with our students and talked about art as empathy, and so our students made paper flowers that we mailed to the memorial.
TURNER: Megan Jones is VP of education at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and she says one thing has stood out to her about the questions that she and her staff have been hearing from kids this year.
MEGAN JONES: They're asking, what was it like for you? How did you feel after 9/11? When did you feel safe again?
TURNER: The reason, Jones thinks, is because today's students are living through a new tragedy that has upended their lives and killed 650,000 grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, in the U.S. alone. So this year...
JONES: Young people are looking to a generation who did live through, you know, a world-changing event, and they want to know that it's possible to come out of it. And how did we do it?
TURNER: And the answers - that it is possible but hard and that we have to help each other - are as relevant today as ever.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
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