Although September 11 has no direct connection to the Arab Spring, it is often the first thing American students think of when they think of the Middle East, and it is tied tightly to their understanding of politics in the region. The links here provide curricular resources for teachers incorporating 9/11 into their lesson plans.

For general information about Islam and the Middle East (not specific to 9/11), see the Islam and Middle East pages.

Teaching 9/11
Primary Sources
Curriculum Reviews
General Recommendations

Teaching 9/11

    • How Would You Teach 9/11? (Radio Boston)
    • The Challenge of Teaching 9/11 (Public Radio International – The World)
    • 9/11: The Imprint on Schools (Education Week)
    • Teaching 9/11: How educators are responding 10 years later (Christian Science Monitor)
    • 9-11 Commemoration Resources (National Council for the Social Studies)
    • Letters to the Editor, published in 2001 in Social Forces, debate how to teach 9/11: Part 1, Part 2
    • Primary Sources

    • Remembering 9/11
      From National Geographic: Brief interviews with individuals who discuss and remember September 11 from many different viewpoints, including relatives of the victims, counter-terrorism experts, and journalists who cover the Middle East. Middle and high school students too young to remember the day clearly might also benefit from this 45-minute video, recounting the events sequentially from the perspective of firefighters in New York City and tapes of 911 calls. This is a straightforward accounting of the attacks themselves, with little political content — useful for setting the stage before grappling with larger questions.
    • Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive
      A phenomenal resource from The Internet Archive: Television footage of September 11 as it was reported, in real-time, in the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Mexico, Canada, Iraq, France, Russia, and Japan. Along the top, viewers are given a minute-by-minute guide to what was happening on the morning of the attacks, and can then see what different news networks were covering at that moment.
    • Screenshot Archive of Online News Sites
      From Interactive Publishing: Screenshots of more than 250 news sites from around the world, taken on September 11 and 12, 2001.
    • Days of Infamy: December 7 and 9/11
      Radio recordings made after the attacks on Pearl Harbor are presented alongside audio recordings from September 11. The site is organized into four themes: Getting the News, Patriotism, The ‘Enemy’ Among Us, and Sacrifice, each with a RealAudio recording of about 10 minutes. Recall that in 1941 Americans still remembered the horrors of World War I and were divided on the wisdom of entering World War II. The question of how the U.S. should respond militarily was on people’s minds, in ways that have many parallels to the situation on September 11.
    • The Sonic Memorial Project
      From NPR: The Sonic Memorial lesson plans focus on the World Trade Center site itself, beginning with the area’s pre-WTC history as “Radio Row” in the 1920s. There are sound clips associated with each lesson. As students learn about the history of this small part of New York City in the 20th century, they also learn how to make and preserve oral history. (And to go back even further — see New York archaeologists excavate 18th century shipwhile digging at the WTC site)
    • September 11: Personal Stories of Transformation
      From the Tribute WTC Visitor Center: Eight stories (on video) of individuals who were impacted by September 11 and responded by developing projects promoting peace. Includes an interview with Masahiro Sasaki, the brother of Sadako Sasaki, whom American students might remember if they read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranesin elementary school.
    • Our 9/11: Growing Up In The Aftermath
      A radio show produced by six teenagers, Radio Rookies, about the way their lives have been impacted by September 11. The stories presented here go beyond narratives of the day and delve into the ways 9/11 disrupted business as usual for their families and ended up changing their childhoods.
    • The Stuyvesant Spectator – 9/11 Edition
      Stuyvesant High School was located near Ground Zero and had to be evacuated immediately after the attacks. This is a special commemorative issue of their student newspaper.
    • The meaning of 9/11′s most controversial photo
      What story is told in single snapshot? What stories are missing?
    • Forbidden thoughts about 9/11
      In any lesson dealing with historical trauma, there will be some students who don’t connect with the story or who reject the narrative as sentimental. Some of these students will feel guilty for feeling the way the do and may simply stay silent, but a few may joke about it or gravitate towards extreme political positions, as a way of rejecting what they perceive as management and manipulation of their emotions. Rather than ignore or marginalize this response, teachers might choose to confront it directly. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to respond to tragedy? This controversial article published in Salonin 2002 includes “forbidden” sentiments about 9/11, such as excitement at the spectacle, fury at friends’ and co-workers’ hypocrisy, or annoyance that other planned events were interrupted. Several of the comments contain profanity and sexual references that make an already charged topic even more controversial in a high school context; these are probably best omitted. But teachers might choose to share a small sample of the reactions, especially those expressing excitement or indifference, and ask students to reflect on the variety of responses and the sense that some emotions feel taboo.
    • Tamim Ansary Letter on Afghanistan
      Two days after September 11, Afghan-American Tamim Ansary sent an e-mail to a few friends pleading against a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. His friends forwarded it on, and soon it had reached thousands of people around the world. Ansary is a K-12 curriculum writer by trade, and his short e-mail describes in plain language the recent history of Afghanistan and the pragmatic difficulties of mounting a successful invasion against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
    • Rumors of War
      After any major event, rumors begin to fly. Snopes.com is a website maintained by Barbara and David Mikkelson, folklorists who specialize in urban legend research. Students can browse September 11 rumors and read the Mikkelsons’ explanations of their likely origins. What fears and beliefs are expressed in these stories? What tools do the Mikkelsons use to investigate historical accuracy? Almost as interesting as the false reports are the ones that turned out to be true. If a fact is accepted without question, it’s unlikely to make the Snopes list. Which facts are people less sure about? Why? For example, Tamim Ansary’s letter (above) is on the list. It’s marked as “true,” but its existence on the list at all suggests some people doubted its veracity.
    • Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) Homepage
      Some depictions of Afghanistan written for young people imply that the country had no internal resistance to the Taliban and no experience with women’s rights. RAWA is an organization that was fighting the Taliban’s draconian measures against women long before the U.S. invasion. See their Educational Policypage, including critiques of textbooks (links at bottom).
    • Why Are They So Angry At Us?
      This American RadioWorks program (26 minutes) provides a brief history of the Crusades followed by modern, person-on-the-street interviews with people in Egypt and Jordan. This program was recorded before the Arab Spring, but listening to it with the benefit of hindsight makes events in both 2001 and 2011 easier to understand.
    • Witnesses to Terror: The 9/11 Hearings
      Results of the 18-month investigation of September 11 were published as The 9/11 Commission Report. This one-hour program from American RadioWorks describes the Commission’s findings. This is a good place to start when discussing civil liberties and immigration policy, since many of the changes began with the issues outlined here.
    • Unheard Voices of 9/11
      First-person stories from Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians, and Arab Americans who were impacted by racism and xenophobia after September 11.
    • The Project for a New American Century
      The Project for a New American Century is a conservative think tank formed during the Clinton administration. With a membership that includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush, Steve Forbes, William J. Bennett, and Francis Fukuyama, it was instrumental in shaping foreign policy during the Bush administration. Most of the articles and reports on this web site are too dense (and uninteresting) for high school students, but the organization’s Statement of Principles is short and can be understood with some scaffolding and vocabulary help from the teacher. See also their Letter to President Bush on the War on Terrorism, written 9 days after September 11. This letter is consistent with the group’s earlier (pre-9/11) calls for stronger action against Iraqunder the Clinton administration.
    • Axis of Evil: Christopher Hitchens at the Commonwealth Club
      Christopher Hitchens is a left/liberal British writer who supported the invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds. In segments 03, 04, and 05 of this video (11 minutes), he describes the “atmosphere of terror” under Saddam Hussein. (Warning: there are no photos here, but the scenes he describes are very graphic.)Although both Hitchens and the policymakers at the Project for a New American Century supported the invasion of Iraq, their reasoning was different. The Project for a New American Century advocated multiple U.S. invasions in the Middle East and Central Asia as part of a long-term strategy to protect and support American interests, to ensure that the United States would retain its position as a global leader after the formation of the European Union and against a rising China and East Asia. In contrast, Hitchens supported the Iraqi invasion because he wanted to see Saddam Hussein removed from power and an end human rights abuses against Iraqis. Students should examine the ways these goals are overlapping but not synonymous.
    • Not Again
      Like Christopher Hitchens, Arundhati Roy is a left/liberal writer concerned with ending human rights abuses. Unlike Hitchens, she opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq. In this opinion piece, published a year after September 11, she outlines her reasons for being against the war.
    • September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America
      Two organizations founded by 9/11 families. What are their shared priorities? How do they differ politically?
    • Curriculum Reviews

    • 9/11 Memorial Teaching Guides
      The lesson plans provided by the 9/11 Memorial Museum are concise and aligned with the Common Core. Although the range of topics and activities is not as wide as that offered by other curricula, the lessons have some unique features, such as a discussion of the symbolic value of the targets hit on September 11, a comparison of the WTC and the Buddhist statues destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, for younger students, a lesson about the search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero. Recommended especially for teachers who are spending only a short time on September 11 activities, and as a method for helping students understand the targets themselves: why they were chosen by Al-Qaeda, and how Americans have chosen to memorialize these symbols and the people who were lost there.
    • 9/11 Anniversary Teaching Guide
      From the Morningside Center for Social Responsibility: Lesson plans for all age groups, including kindergarten. In the younger grades, activities help students understand assemblies, memorials, and news coverage they may be exposed to in school or outside the classroom. In the middle grades, students are given more background and urged to understand 9/11 as an event of historical importance, for example by interviewing family members who remember where they were when they heard the news. At the high school level, students separate fact from opinion, evaluate the qualifications and biases of experts, and discuss and debate events that followed 9/11, such as the war in Afghanistan.
    • Teaching and Learning About 9/11 With The New York Times
      The New York Times’ Learning Network posted a lesson plan on September 12, 2001, and has been updating the site continually since then; in terms of sheer coverage of 9/11-related topics, this curriculum guide is the most comprehensive online. The only drawback is that it is a print-heavy resource. Understandably so, since it is associated with a newspaper, but teachers may grow weary of using New York Times articles and web features as their only resource, and students should learn to evaluate other content. But this site is an excellent starting point, especially for teachers developing an initial outline and topical guidelines.
    • Confronting September 11
      From Facing History and Ourselves: Thirteen essays, followed by thought-provoking questions for high school students. Lessons include background information on the Middle East and extremist Islamic movements, as well as a discussion of broader questions related to violence, civil liberties, intolerance, and terrorism.
    • Beyond Blame (pdf)
      Beyond Blame is a short curriculum developed by the Education Development Center shortly after 9/11. It examines parallels between the aftermath of September 11th and the internment of Japanese Americans in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Teachers might supplement these lessons with photographs and other documents from the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives.
    • Learning from the Challenges of Our Times: Global Security, Terrorism and 9/11 in the Classroom
      This 264-page standalone curriculum was developed by volunteer teachers and 9/11 family members as a way of helping students understand and cope with September 11. At the elementary level, its focus is exclusively on character education: teaching children to be good friends, to respect others, to appreciate differences, to honor heroes, and to avoid violence. These themes are continued in the middle and high school levels, alongside more historical content. Middle school lessons focus on contentious political groups and historical periods that are more distant (e.g. the KKK, child soldiers in Africa, Hitler Youth), enabling students to think about ethics and violence while remaining one step removed from current events. At the high school level, lessons deal directly with 9/11 and international affairs, including the appeal of terrorism to those in desperate circumstances.The curriculum’s writers are very attentive to students’ emotions and the potential for trauma. While this is necessary to create a safe space in the classroom, it is a stance that sometimes risks omitting facts and opinions necessary to understand 9/11 and its aftermath, especially at the elementary level. At the high school level, the “Road to 9/11″ unit (Lesson HIV-10) is too complex for a single lesson yet simultaneously too simplistic as an explanation for the rise of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror networks, with too little attention to the role of anti-colonialist movements in shaping both secular Arab nationalism and Islamist resistance. The lesson also tells Palestinian history from a pro-Israeli perspective without acknowledging this bias, and places too much emphasis on the Palestinian issue as a motivating factor behind 9/11. And despite its importance over the past decade, the war in Iraq is mentioned only briefly in the curriculum, in the context of one lesson on media literacy and another on the 9/11 Commission Report.Recommended as a resource for teaching overarching concepts such as violence, terror, reconciliation, and justice. For specific historical information about the Middle East and Al-Qaeda, supplement with other material.
    • The Geopolitics of War
      This short article in Rethinking Schools, by Michael Klare, explains the origins of the U.S. friendship with Saudi Arabia, the importance of oil to the global economy, and Bin Laden’s ultimate goal — to overthrow the House of Saud, the ruling regime in his native Saudi Arabia. Klare notes, correctly, that Saudi Arabia is “the true center of the conflict,” which can be confusing to students because none of the wars the United States has been involved in since 9/11 have taken place on Saudi soil. Moreover, Bin Laden’s role as a Saudi dissident– as opposed to mere Saudi citizen — is not always fully understood, which contributes to the mistaken idea that the government of Saudi Arabia was supportive of the 9/11 attacks and makes the U.S.-Saudi friendship especially hard to understand. The questions at the end of this article provide direction to teachers who wish to help students explore the issue further. As with any discussion about foreign policy, teachers should make distinctions between a country’s government and its citizens.
    • Whose “Terrorism?” (with examples)
      From Rethinking Schools: Students are asked to consider the definition of terrorism. Is it terrorism if no one is injured? Can a state commit terrorism? What if civilians are killed accidentally? Is violence against property terrorism? Can violence be justified depending on the cause? There are no clear answers here, but students will consider the way this word can be used (and mis-used) for political purposes.
    • America Responds
      Superb background information from PBS. Lesson plans examine Afghanistan’s history, debates over the response to terrorism, human rights and international law using authentic materials from the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, Amnesty International, and other organizations. This is an older site and unfortunately many of the external links are dead, so teachers may need to do some sleuthing to find updated URLs or replacement materials. PBS also has an archive of short videos of students in their early 20s talking about their memories of 9/11, when they were in middle school and high school.
    • Media Literacy Skills: Interpreting Tragedy (pdf)
      From the National Council for the Social Studies: In critiquing media stories, students also learn to think like historians. How are articles, videos, and radio programs constructed? Which details are foregrounded, and which must be set aside? What stories are not told?
    • Project Look Sharp
      Project Look Sharp offers thematic units on media literacy. Their Middle East lessons look at terrorism and the war in Iraq through photographs, video, political cartoons, and war coverage.
    • Post-9/11 Comic Books and Graphic Novels
      A list of graphic novels about September 11 and the wars that followed. See The Outreach Center at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies for more information on using graphic novels in the classroom.

The following sites are not recommended for classroom use:

    • 9/11: The Day That Changed America
      Scholastic’s 9/11 lesson plans have not been updated since 2002. They contain no political or historical context, focusing exclusively on the patriotism and heroism of rescue workers. To the extent that controversial issues are addressed, the site only asks students to consider what sort of memorial should be built on the WTC site and whether pilots should be allowed to have guns in the cockpit.
      > Their Most Frequently Asked Questions document, associated with the middle school lesson, is more than eight years out of date and was incomplete or inaccurate even when it was published, implying that Iraq was involved in 9/11, that there were many Al-Qaeda sleeper cells still in hiding in the United States, and that the Muslims arrested after 9/11 were all guilty of participation in terrorist plots.
      > The America’s Spies unit describes only the “cool” aspect of FBI and CIA work (“They can spot a bicycle from 200 miles in space. They can retrieve and read every e-mail someone has ever sent or received”), without any attention to questions of civil liberties.
      > Terrorist motivations are almost completely ignored, but when they are addressed the site parrots Bush’s “they hate us for our freedom” line: “[T]hese extreme groups see American values—-such as diversity, tolerance, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion—-as evils that they want destroyed and kept out of their own societies.”
      > Their Kids in Afghanistan page has some cultural information written in accessible language, but because the site eschews controversy it leaves students with the impression that Afghanistan’s poverty is a neutral and natural outcome of history: the country is a place that “has not changed much in the last 100 years.” In reality, Afghanistan looked very different in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion plunged the country into 30 years of warfare. Although the site attributes some of this poverty to “the war,” it does not discuss the way Afghan civilians have been victimized by outside interests, and does not name the Soviet Union, the United States, or the Taliban as actors in “the war” (and in fact always refers to “the war” in the singular, even though Afghanistan has been home to several conflicts, with multiple players, since the early 1980s). Afghanistan’s geopolitical history is complicated, too complicated for young students to fully grasp, but to ignore it altogether perpetuates the idea that the people of Afghanistan are simply backward and have always been so.
    • Teaching about 9/11 in 2011: What Our Children Need to Know
      This 35-page handout from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is less a curriculum than a conservative position statement. With chapters like “Preserving America, Man’s Greatest Hope” and “America: Always Vulnerable, Never Inevitable,” it champions American exceptionalism and rails against teachers’ unions, multiculturalism in the classroom, public schools, and “diversity” (a word that appears in “quotes”). While it is vital that students understand conservative positions on foreign policy and the war on terror, this should be done as part of a comprehensive curriculum. Even students who are conservative themselves would not gain much from lessons derived from this patriotic handout, since their positions wouldn’t be challenged in meaningful ways, leaving them unprepared to defend their opinions.
    • Teaching the Iraq War
      PBS provides strong curriculum resources on September 11 and Afghanistan (see above) but its News Hour lessons on Iraq are out of date. Although several of the lessons present anti-war perspectives, and therefore give the impression of balance, they predict a conflict similar to the first Gulf War in 1991 and present the parameters of the debate in those terms. For example, students are asked to consider the ethics of warfare when civilians might be accidentally harmed during attacks on military targets. This is an important question, but students learning about the Iraq War today should also learn about the deliberate torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, something that was not predicted in 2003. Likewise, students should consider the ethics of invading a country that is believed to be stockpiling chemical and biological weapons, but today’s students should know that no WMD were found in Iraq. The lessons also assume that the U.S. may encounter resistance “bringing” democracy to Iraq. This — defining democracy as an American gift, and painting the Iraqi resistance as opposition to democracy rather than opposition to foreign intervention — was a framework that was protested at the time, but is especially outmoded in light of the Arab Spring.

General Recommendations

  • “Islam” does not do, say, or think anything. Muslims do. Combing the Qur’an for statements supporting or condemning violence does not aid understanding, just as combing the Bible for similar statements would not have helped students understand Protestant/Catholic violence in Northern Ireland. Focus on political motivations.
  • Encourage students to see Muslims’ diversity and to understand that September 11 was widely condemned by Muslim groups around the world.
  • Avoid making distinctions between Americans vs. Muslims, or Islam vs. the West. This dichotomy erases the experiences of American and European Muslims, and exaggerates cultural differences between Western and Middle Eastern countries.
  • Avoid conflating issues: The pro-war side does not “own” patriotism; the anti-war side does not “own” anti-racism.
  • Remember that most debates have more than two sides.
  • Avoid claiming concepts like “democracy,” “freedom of speech,” or “women’s rights” as uniquely American. These ideals were not invented or developed in any single country, and have supporters all over the world.