Q&A with Author Don Brown on Teaching September 11

TeacherVision sat down with Don Brown, author of America is Under Attack—September 11, 2011: The Day the Towers Fell to learn more about the reasons he had for writing the book, tips on introducing the topic of 9/11 in the classroom, and suggested activities for tying in the discussion with current events.

TeacherVision (TV): Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Don Brown: I was home, working. While listening to the radio, a news flash reported that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, sending me to the television where I stayed glued for the next 12 hours.

TV: Were you directly affected by the events? If so, how did your life change in the days and weeks after September 11?

Brown: I live in a "bedroom" community of New York City. I know many people working in the City, including New York firefighters. Their fate weighed on me. Most survived but fifteen of my neighbors perished, a grievous number for a small town.

TV: The images of September 11 evoke strong emotional responses. What inspired you to tell this story as a picture book for children?

Brown: My publisher, Roaring Brook Press, suggested it, but I hesitated. The disaster retained a painful immediacy, an unsettling rawness that made me question the appropriateness of the project for kids. In the end, I decided that the extraordinary storytelling power of text joined to image could be helpful in shaping the troubling 9/11 story for kids who had no or little memory of the event.

TV: How should teachers broach the topic of 9/11 in their classrooms?

Brown: Gently, thoughtfully. It's entirely possible that there are children in their classrooms that have a direct connection to the disaster by way of a fallen family friend or relative. Perhaps a teacher should first question their class about the tragedy to gauge their existing knowledge and then expand upon that understanding. Special attention should be paid to dispelling myths and misunderstandings about the attack.

TV: Many students may not have been alive on September 11, 2001, or were too young to remember it. Do you have any tips on explaining the events to children in a non-threatening way?

Brown: Information about the death and destruction of September 11th should be broadly presented; explicit details should be avoided.

TV: Students who don't remember September 11, or who weren't directly affected, may feel disconnected from this discussion. How can teachers demonstrate the gravity and tragedy of that day without scaring children? Do you recommend any activities or lessons that would help teachers demonstrate the number of lives lost and affected?

Brown: Raw 9/11 data can be explained to kids by comparisons to places and things that they are familiar. A teacher might say the World Trade Center was 100 times taller than the Main Street Clock Tower or that the number of first responders was greater than all the workers at the Big Deal Factory.

TV: How can teachers explain the changes America has faced since the attacks (e.g. security, travel, and the national identity)?

Brown: Teachers can remind children of the ancillary effects of the event like security checks at the airport when traveling, and friends or family serving in the military overseas.

TV: Older students will likely understand the impact 9/11 had on America and the world, even if they don't remember the events. How can teachers tie in a discussion of September 11 with current events in the Middle East, without fostering hatred—i.e. negative attitudes and remarks about Muslim or Middle Eastern students?

Brown: The 9/11 attack was the product of fringe Muslim fundamentalists who used their fanatical interpretation of Islam to justify atrocious violence against non-believers, including other, non-conforming Muslims.

Teachers can point their students to the world history of religious, cultural, and political extremists and the violence they employed. The history of extremist violence by Americans against other Americans can also be explored.

Students can debate the best ways to respond to extremists' violence, and measure their conclusions against American response to the September 11th attack. Students can be quizzed whether if they plan to follow anti-terrorism careers, such as in the military or law enforcement.

Teachers can encourage class discussion about the wisdom or fallacy of making conclusions about individuals by their connection to a race, religion, culture, or place of national origin. (And sexual orientation, for age appropriate students.) Students can be quizzed whether they have been judged in such a manner and what that meant to them.

Students can be quizzed where Islam is practiced outside of the Middle East.

Find more information on teaching September 11 with TeacherVision's literature guides, creative activities, discussion questions, and history lessons.

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