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September 11 in schools: How teachers are helping students understand

September 11 can be a difficult subject for students to make sense of, but teachers have an expanding set of resources to help students think about the day.

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Embedded in the lessons are ways the students can consider acts of service to turn a tragedy into an opportunity. “Teaching about 9/11 and terrorism can be scary stuff for both teachers and students.... [but] the best way to combat this fear ... is to empower our youth to help them see they can make a difference,” said MaryEllen Salamone, who lost her husband on 9/11 and co-founded the 4 Action Initiative, which helped develop the lessons.

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Adele Black, a teacher at Copeland Middle School in Rockaway, New Jersey, who also worked on the lesson plans, used children’s 9/11 art to lead a discussion in her 7th-grade class earlier this week. She has also encouraged them to do something nice for others on Saturday, and as a team they’ll be raising money for a children’s cancer charity.

Capt. Tom Daniel, a retired career Navy man who teaches the Navy JROTC program at W.P. Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala., will share with his students his own experience evacuating from the Pentagon on 9/11. He and his colleagues had seen the news about the New York attacks on television, but when the Pentagon was hit, they thought it was a crash of a VIP helicopter, so many of them left their keys and purses on their desks.

On the anniversary, Captain Daniel says, “the most important lesson is pretty much what we emphasize every day – and that’s being good citizens,” not necessarily by joining the military but by doing their best in whatever profession they choose. “That’s how you pay back society for the privileges that you have as an American citizen.”

The private Rowland Hall school in Salt Lake City is holding an assembly Friday, where English teacher Joel Long’s creative-writing students will present poems they’ve written after studying poetry forged in the aftermath of 9/11, such as Galway Kinnell's "When the Towers Fell."

"Maybe I’m idealistic about what art can do,” Mr. Long says, “but I do think that poetry can contain the germ of what matters.”

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