Not much fazes Lincoln Heights Elementary School fifth-grade social studies teacher Tammy Steere with 25 years of teaching experience.
That is, until she thought about whether to teach the history of 9/11 for the 10-year anniversary.
“I’ve never taught it before,” Steele said with apprehension Friday morning as she prepared for her first class of fifth-graders to enter the room. “I’m concerned about the kids and fear.”
But with the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 Monday, Steere decided she needed to spend some class time discussing the events with the children, who were either not born when the attacks happened or were too young to a recollection of the events.
Like many who experienced that day, Steere remembers exactly where she was when she found out about the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the hijacked airliner that crashed near Shanksville, Pa.
“When this (9/11) happened originally, I was walking a classroom of kids to specials,” Steere said, thinking back to that day. “I saw coverage of the twin towers on the office television and (after delivering the children to their class) went to the teachers lounge and watched the second plane hit.”
She said the school was immediately in an uproar about what to do with the pupils — some wondered if they should let the children know what was going on, while others thought that should be a job for parents.
“We talked a little bit about it and decided not to talk about it and let the parents tell them,” Steere said.
The next day at school, Steere said the children were understandably confused and afraid by the events of 9/11.
“We all were,” Steere said.
She said some of the students wanted to talk about it, so she let them express their feelings.
“Many of them were able to voice their fear,” Steere said. “We talked about it when they wanted to, but I didn’t dwell on it.”
Too young to remember
Steere realized that most of the students in her class — comprised of three 9-year-olds, 16 10-year-olds and two 11-year-olds — weren’t even born when the terrorists attacked. She spent a lot of time looking for resources online that could be used to help educate children on the events of 9/11 without causing unnecessary fear.
“Ten-year-olds seem older than they are, but they are still little kids,” Steere said.
The seasoned teacher was surprised by the amount of “conspiracy stuff” online about the attacks and continued her search until she found an 11-minute video that explained the history surrounding 9/11.
“I just want to keep it short and sweet,” she said.
Vague understanding of the events
Steere decided the best way to start teaching about 9/11 was to find out what the students know.
“What does the date 9/11 mean to you?” she asked the class.
Some of their answers showed a hint of knowledge, but some of the answers showed an apparent lack of understanding.
“That was the day when the Germans attacked the Twin Towers,” said a little girl named Samantha.
“That was when two U.S. planes were flown into the Twin Towers and hit each other,” a boy named Cordell added.
Steere took careful notes on the childrens’ responses, taking care not to make any of the pupils feel stupid.
“What else do you know about it?” she asked, prompting them to continue the dialogue and assist her in assessing their depth of knowledge.
“The terrorist who did this was Osama bin Laden,” added Jake.
The students said that “Osama attacked with the help of other terrorists,” and that they “committed suicide” when they hijacked the planes.
“And we couldn’t shoot down the planes because it would release tons of jet fuel into the ocean,” said a young voice from the back of the classroom. “And Osama was killed by Seal Team 6.”
Surprised and impressed
Steere told the students she was “surprised and impressed” by how much they knew about the various terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“Where did you learn all this stuff,” she asked them.
“Actually, when I was born, my poundage was 9 (pounds), 11 (ounces), so I’ve always been interested in it,” replied Ryan MacDonald, who seemed to shoot his hand into the air at any prompting for more information on 9/11. “When I was 4, I went online to learn about it.”
“My mom and dad told me about it,” said another little girl shyly. “My mom knows all about it because she watched it when it was on TV.”
Steere showed the students the short film about 9/11, which included pictures of many of the terrorists involved in the plot, as well as footage from the attacks, so the children could see events first-hand.
She concluded the presentation with information on the local commemorative efforts honoring the anniversary of 9/11 and photos of memorials in New York and Washington, D.C, which caused a rumble of “cool” and “sweet” from the youngsters.
When asked what has changed since 9/11, the children didn’t have many answers — after all, they don’t have any recollection of what it was like before the attacks.
“We’ve lost some freedoms,” Steere said, explaining how airport security has tightened, police presence at events has increased and background checks are required for many jobs — including teachers and school volunteers.
“Everything is being done to keep you safe,” Steere assured them.
Steere said she was “blown away” with how much the children knew and understood. Though they didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the events of 9/11, it was obvious that parents had done their part in helping their children understand.
She said the hesitation to teach 9/11 events to her young students is now a thing of the past.
“It’s not a total time of sorrow,” Steere said. “We’re celebrating (the victims’ lives) too, which is just as important. This is an event that happened that totally changed our lives.”