Design for Change USA Blog

Stepping into Grief: How We Discuss Tragedies Like 9/11 in the Classroom



What I remember as a student learning about 9/11


Growing up, our house always buzzed in the morning. My dad worked from home, my mom, an educator, always rushing to get out of the door and me with just a week of high school under my belt. Our kitchen was a hive of activity trying to eat breakfast, make lunches, and make sure all our assignments were in our bags. Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 was different.


I came downstairs to see my dad at a standstill, staring at the Today Show and smoke plumes rising from the one of the World Trade Center towers. My confusion was further fueled by the panic of New Yorkers on-screen, covered in ash and the sound of sirens blaring through the TV.


When my carpool arrived, she hadn’t heard the news and just before turning the last corner before school, someone finally said something. We turned on the radio just as the second tower collapsed. Many of my teachers were at a loss for words about what to say or do in class. A math class continued on but with a somber tone; Spanish lacked the usual urging for silence- we were silent without needing to be told. I cannot blame the teachers for being at a loss for words about what to do or say in the midst of a national tragedy, especially when it would take months to sort through who was responsible, what their motives were, what actions the US would eventually take, and how we as a nation would heal.


However, my history teacher took a different approach


However, my history teacher took a different approach. Instead, he asked us what we were thinking, what questions we had, trying to help us process what was continuing to unfold throughout the day. He acknowledged the tragedy, and although he did not provide answers, instead he waded into the confusion with us, knowing we needed help processing as much as he did.


In the years following, studying to become an educator myself, having classes of my own and sitting with students in tragedy, I’ve held this memory as a reminder that as educators we too can be confused, afraid, and at a loss for words. It requires a high degree of courage and vulnerability to sit with students, the same students who regularly come to you with content-based questions, and say and say ‘I’m at a loss for words. I’m still processing and I’m sure many of you are too. Let’s process it together.”


How we can teach students ways to process and deal with tragedies


As a nation we came together to create impromptu memorials out of the twisted steel beams of the World Trade Center, to write songs that became memorials for first responders and anthems for healing, to stand with our Muslim and Seik neighbors who were wrongly stereotyped as terrorists. We took our grief and transformed it into action. All the while students around the country watched. Our students are capable of so much when given the space to process and let their grief transform into action.


I’ve witnessed students travel across the country years after hurricane Katrina to continue building homes for victims. I’ve stood next to students as they held vigils and staged walkouts in response to gun violence in school shooting after school shooting after school shooting. I’ve been in awe as students spoke about their experiences with sexism and asked that we take time as a school to have a conversation to honor those experiences. I’ve been at a loss for words when students performed a memorial to victims of police violence only a few months before a police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd.


Tragedies come, we grieve, we process, we grow and ask “What can we do now?” When these events occur, you might be the first face a student sees as the tragedy unfolds and smoke continues to billow. Acknowledge the confusion, the pain, the anger, the sadness, all of the emotions swirling in your classroom that day. Let your students know that you are still processing, too. The transformation of grief to action might not happen that very same day, but creating the space for students to feel what they are feeling is how you can make that growth possible.


I don’t remember what lessons, vocab or theories were taught on September 11th. I only remember the brave teacher who decided to not go on with the lesson planned for that day. Not knowing what we were thinking or feeling, he asked anyway. Our students need more brave teachers to acknowledge tragedy as it happens, pausing from lessons and wading into grief with your students. Your students will surprise you with their honesty, wisdom and eventually their ingenuity in how they are able to transform grief into empathy into action.


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