One of the most powerful lessons I teach to my 8th graders each year is about the events of September 11th, 2001.

When we first started doing our integrated New York City Unit five or six years ago, my team and I just took it for granted that our students knew about the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and could refer to them in passing and be reasonably sure that our guys would know what we were talking about.

By last year, it became clear that that is no longer the case. 

My current students are fourteen years old, which means that they were in kindergarten in 2001. It is likely that their parents did not let them watch television during the week of the attacks (which I think would have probably been a wise decision). Even if my students were exposed to everything that was going on that week, their understanding of the events would have been that of five year-olds.

In the intervening years, it's pretty unlikely that many of the the parents of our guys have sat down and talked through what went on in New York and Washington nine years ago. It's hard enough to have the Sex Talk, the Drug Talk, the Politics Talk (this IS New Hampshire, after all!), the Peer-Pressure Talk and the Did-You-Really-Think-Doing-That-During-A-Wedding-Was-A-Good-Decision? Talk; it really wouldn't occur to most of us to have a 9-11 Talk with our kids.

So, last year, I started teaching a one class-period lesson on the events of September 11th. The idea is to present a very factual, step-by-step explanation of the events, so that when we visit the World Trade Center Site on our class trip next month, the students will understand what they are seeing.

This is what I've come up with:

Conspiracy Theories

I like to use a lot of Primary Source material in my lessons, so when I started putting this lesson together, I looked online for news footage of the terrorist attacks and was surprised at the sheer metric tonnage of crackpot conspiracy theories there are about the events. It occurred to me that if a student was trying to do independent research on what happened, it would be very easy to draw some extremely questionable conclusions from the websites and videos that come up on Google and YouTube searches.

I use this as a teachable moment. I talk to my guys about what a conspiracy theory is. I tell tell them about my acid-test for conspiracy theories: 1) How many people would have had to be in on this conspiracy for it to have worked? 2) Would it be possible to keep all those people quiet?

 I use the The-Moon-Landing-Was-Faked theory as an example:

In order to run NASA and all the faked launching industry, to build the soundstage in New Mexico somewhere, to build scale models, film, edit and produce the footage, get it onto all news networks everywhere, convince the CIA, FBI, NSA and other intelligence agencies to go along with it AND the KGB, GRU and other Soviet agencies to go along with it, how many people would have had to be in on the plot?



I don't know much about the technical aspects of space travel, orbital ballistics, low-light photography or lunar dust viscosity, but I do know that people are knuckle-heads and like to brag. The odds seem overwhelming to me that at least one high-ranking official would have blown the whistle on an operation that big.

I apply the same test to the events of 9-11. Is it possible for some of these conspiracy theories to be at least partially true?


Is it likely?


I tell my guys that to the best of my knowledge, the events I'm going to share with them are accurate. Probably something like 95%+

They seem good with that.

The Hijackers

I explain that of the 19 hijackers who took control of the planes that day, fifteen were Saudi Arabian, two were from the United Arab Emirates (a country we've covered previously in Geography) and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. To the best of our knowledge, none of them were acting on orders from the government of Iraq or any other government. They were all members of a private terrorist organization. (I do not go into specifics about Al Qaeda - that would be a whole other lesson.)

My students find it interesting how ordinary these nineteen guys look. A couple of them look vaguely threatening, but a couple of them look like some guy who lives in his his mom's basement and plays a lot of video games. Most just look like businessmen and college students.

The Events

(I've edited the colors of these flight-paths to make them easier to see on a PowerPoint.)
As I explain the step-by-step mechanics of the hijackings themselves, I have to try to explain the mentality of a world where suicide terrorists had never crashed an airliner before. This is a little hard for my guys to understand, because they've all grown up in a world where that has happened.

We discuss why early morning, cross-country flights were chosen - mostly for the full fuel tanks.

At this point, you can hear a pin drop in my classroom. (It would be very gratifying, if the topic weren't so grim.)

Then I show them several video clips:

These are the main points I make about the plane strikes themselves:

1) The impacts of the planes, while bad, were not what brought the buildings down. During World War II, a bomber got lost in the fog and crashed into the Empire State Building and it stayed up. The towers of the World Trade Center were even bigger and stronger.

2) It was the heat from the exploding jet fuel that softened the support beams until they couldn't bear the weight from the floors above the impact.

I don't know if this is 100% accurate from a pure engineering point-of-view, but is a reasonably good explanation for our purposes.

This next video clip is an engineering simulation produced by engineers at Perdue University, demonstrating the structural damage done by the planes and the exploding jet fuel. (It is probably the most amazing, dramatic clip I have ever used in my classroom.)

This is footage of the towers coming down:

Here are a few still images that I use to illustrate the events:
I like to emphasize the bravery of the firefighters, police and paramedics who led rescue efforts. Most of the surviving firefighters said later that they all knew the towers were going to come down as soon as they arrived on the scene. A lot - maybe most - of the First Responders knew that they were going to die when they went into the buildings. They made the commitment to stay in until the end, saving as many people as possible.
This one always chokes me up.

Freedom Tower


We discuss briefly the new tower that is under construction on the site of the World Trade Center - the Freedom Tower.

When it is complete, it will be 1,776 feet tall. (Get it? 1776?) This is an easy fact for my guys to remember and sounds very impressive when repeated later that night at the dinner table.


This lesson is probably the most dramatic one that I teach during the year. I've found that it works best if it is presented as a one-period, intensive lecture. Because I normally get to this lesson at the end of the year, when we are under the most critical time-crunch of the year, I don't have a project or assessment tied to this lesson. It seems to stand pretty well on its own.

5/15/2010 09:46:22

I actually have had an age-appropriate 9/11 talk with Evan, but I nonetheless hope that when it fits into his curriculum, he has a teacher who has put even half the thought into presenting it that you have. Otherwise I might ask you to do an individual lesson!

I read what you wrote here . . . I'm bracing myself to watch the video clips.

5/16/2010 12:05:13

I commend you for teaching this. It is a hard subject to teach for those of us who remember it so vividly. Unfortunately it has become a pivotal moment in our history and we can't take for granted that our students really know about it. I like the way you talk through conspiracy theories with them, in the age of the Internet it can be hard for those with little reference to navigate through all of that to the truth. Well done.

Kelli Blood
7/15/2010 09:46:42

Gah! I don't know how else to contact you. I saw this and immediately thought of you and your whole NYC unit! Feel free to delete or redirect this elsewhere, but I had to send it on!


9/3/2012 09:21:02

Hah..my quest for what I am doing next week is over.


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