September 11, 2001: A Teaching Moment?

William O’Steen

North Carolina State University



Quite often, planned curriculum within individual classrooms is subverted due to a variety of factors, including attendance, discipline, participation, resistance, and unexpected difficulty or ease with specific content.  However, current, and particularly tragic, events can also be so large in scope as to enter into the classroom, whether invited or not.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate when events such as those that took place on September 11th will occur and require educators to make difficult decisions about how to respond.  One thing is certain, however, educators need to have established reasoning behind their responses.  Apparent from the three educators’ descriptions of their responses, the reasoning behind their responses had to occur spontaneously but can also be framed within patterns supported by Dewey’s functions of the school (1916).   

What to Teach the Teachers?

As I sat in my College of Education office and prepared to teach the September 11th, 10 a.m. meeting of “Methods and Materials for Teaching Middle School Language Arts” course, I began to hear about the events unfolding in New York City.  A phone call from my wife and a brief conversation with a colleague who would be teaching her “Methods and Materials for Teaching Middle School Social Studies” course with me that morning gave me a vague sense that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  However, on the short walk down the hall to my classroom, I did not fully grasp how much our Methods class would differ from my prepared lesson plan.

Responding to the Unexpected in the Classroom

Anecdotes of schools’ and teachers’ responses to unexpected events range from students hearing about President Kennedy’s assassination over the intercom in 1963, to teachers quickly proceeding onto prepared lessons after viewing the Challenger explosion in 1986, to crisis teams arriving at schools after the Columbine shootings in 1999.  As access to information within schools in particular has increased dramatically since Kennedy’s assassination, so too has the potential, and perhaps necessity, for responding to these events within the classroom.   In her column after the attacks, journalist Ellen Goodman (2001) quoted David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family: “We wouldn’t give a second grader a quadratic equation to solve.  But in an information-anywhere-anytime world we have children exposed to quadratic equations of moral information” (p. 16A). 

Even though a school administrator or a classroom teacher should not be expected to serve as a psychologist or therapist, she or he was faced with a decision about how to respond to the events of September 11th within the school environment.  What role did she or he fulfill on those days and was instruction influenced by the events?  In the “information-anywhere-anytime world” described by Walsh, do administrators and classroom teachers have the responsibility to guide students in reading and interpreting the media’s representation of the world, even when it involves disturbing information?

Mandated Content Standards v. An Events-Influenced Curriculum

In describing the influence of the September 11th events on his curriculum, Robert Matheson, a high school principal and teacher in Durham, North Carolina, stated, “I think education is about opportunity, about taking advantage of the world around you.  When you have something like this [the terrorists’ attacks], that’s reality.  That’s real-life application” (Goldstein, 2001, p. 3B).  Matheson echoes John Dewey’s belief that “the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situation in which he [sic] finds himself” (cited in Dworkin, 1959, 20).  Likewise, by utilizing events of the world as a curriculum, that teacher was also practicing the literacy theory of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire: “It is only after they have a firm grasp of their world that they can begin to acquire other knowledge” (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p. 128). 

Because the events on September 11th were so extraordinary, it is likely that many educators of all grade levels considered employing those theories of Dewey and Freire by using the events as teaching moments.  September 11th notwithstanding, educators have always made decisions about using “events-influenced curricula” in responding to tragedies of the Challenger and Columbine proportion or to more regular current events, such as local and national elections.  Amidst increasing pressure from federal and state standards, end-of-grade tests, many educators may see the inclusion of community (or national and international) events in their curricula as not viable. 

Within this environment of increasing emphasis on holding students and teachers accountable for the expected on tests of state and federal standards, it is difficult for teachers to also prepare for the unexpected.  Well-known proponent of standards, E. D. Hirsch, supports this tension teachers may feel with his criticism of the following excerpt from William Heard Kilpatrick’s:  “If people face a rapidly shifting and changing world, changing in unexpected ways and in unexpected directions, then what?  Why their education would stress thinking and methods of attack” (cited in Hirsch, 1996, p. 267).

Hirsch (1996) contends that Kilpatrick’s view advocates that “the subject matter of the American curriculum could never be set in advance” (p. 95) and that “the goal which that new condition [the information age] implies for American education is still said to be what Kilpatrick said it was in 1925: to ignore content (which is quickly outmoded) and to ‘stress thinking and methods of attack.’ Despite their up-to-date sound, these misguided doctrines continue to be promulgated as they were in the 1920’s” (ibid). 

With this debate in mind and understanding that the prospective teachers in my Methods class would soon be teaching in high-stakes testing environments, I greeted them at 10 a.m.  After a brief discussion about the events of the day, I posed two questions to them:  What do you think you would be doing at this moment if you were facing a classroom of middle school students and why?  What do you think other teachers across the country are doing at this moment as they face their classrooms of middle school students?  Rightfully so, they responded with questions of their own:  “What would you have done?  What are we going to do today?  What theories or ideas could we use to help us form our decisions?”

            As we began to muddle through the unexpected events that morning, I felt the obligation to pursue answers to our questions outside of our College of Education classroom and inside their probable places of future employment – secondary school classrooms.

Stories from the Field

Obviously, Sofia Frankowski, a high school social studies teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina teacher believed that she was responsible for using the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th as a teaching moment with, “It’s difficult when something like this happens on such a large scale.  But it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s addressed.  It’s a moment that will change the history of the United States.  I’d feel remiss if I didn’t use this teaching moment” (Hui and Goldstein, 2001, p. 2AA).  But, how did other educators view their roles in responding to these events?  Were her actions of employing an “events-influenced curriculum” similar to the actions of other educators?

Method of Data Collection and Analysis

In order to answer these questions and the ones posed in my Methods class, I obtained descriptions of three educators’ responses to September 11th.  Two educators in the Raleigh, North Carolina area provided their descriptions during a discussion forum entitled, “Teaching Through September 11” (November, 2001).  A third educator in Spruce Pine, North Carolina provided a description of her response during an interview (personal communication, December 12, 2001). 

After collecting and reviewing descriptions of the responses, a clear progression of utilizing the events of September 11th as teaching moments emerged.  Further, this progression fits within Dewey’s roles for “the school as a special environment” (1916, p. 18) and suggests a philosophical framework in which to sequence classroom responses to unexpected events.  During a time of increased patriotic fervor and support for the ideals of democracy, Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) is a most appropriate analytical frame because he intended it to “embody an endeavor to detect and state the ideas implied in a democratic society and to apply these ideas to the problems in the enterprise of education” (p. iii).

Davis Drive Middle School:  Safety and Security through Continuity

Rich Connolly, Assistant Principal of Davis Drive Middle School (a large, suburban public middle school in the Raleigh area), was very clear and confident about his response to the breaking news on September 11th (November, 2001).  Because the Principal was off-campus, Mr. Connolly was the administrator responsible for determining how the administration, faculty, and students would respond.  This is no small task at Davis Drive Middle School due to the presence of television sets in every classroom, which provided an opportunity for students and teachers to receive real-time information, including graphic images, about the hijackings and subsequent collapse of the World Trade Center Towers.  However, after meeting with school counselors, he instructed the other administrators to each take a hallway, privately huddle with teachers on that hallway, and direct teachers to shut off all media and to “conduct business as usual in order to get students through the day and let parents work through it” with their children.

            In explaining his decision, Mr. Connolly stated his belief that, “all students need physical safety, emotional security, and feelings of value.  Viewing the graphic images on television would not have been therapeutic” and only disconcerting in terms of making students feel physically unsafe and emotionally insecure.  His decision was not met with unanimous approval by faculty.  He stated that an 8th grade history teacher, who did not have a class at the time and was watching television, complained that students should be allowed to view a “moment in history.”  Mr. Connolly disagreed, arguing that “history needs time for definition and, if you let them watch [these images on] tv, what is the real purpose from a learning standpoint?”

            At the conclusion of the September 11th school day, Mr. Connolly convened a meeting of the school’s crisis team of administrators, counselors, and faculty.  The team decided that “the first 15-20 minutes of [the] next five school days would be for dialogue with teachers as guides to direct and redirect conversations.  After 20 minutes, upset students could have more time with counselors.”  During the following days and weeks, “students wanted to do something and felt the futility of being 11-14.  We allowed teachers to get students involved in letters, [raising] money, e-mail.”  Mr. Connolly concluded his account of the school’s response by reading a student’s poem written about September 11th, because he “was struck by the metaphors chosen – the sun for warmth and protection and the continuity of the birds’ songs.”

Analytical commentary.  With his response on September 11th, Mr. Connolly attempted to maintain a controlled, continuous, and predictable school environment during a time of national chaos and uncertainty.  This is similar to the foundation upon which Dewey proposed the construction of a school environment with, “The first office of the social organ we call the school is to provide a simplified environment.  It selects the features which are fairly fundamental and capable of being responded to by the young” (1916, p. 20).  Both Dewey’s definition of the first office or function of the school and Mr. Connolly’s actions suggest that the first step to take during an unexpected and overwhelming event is to structure an environment that is appropriate to the students’ ages.

Spruce Pine Montessori School:  The Peace Hike

Like Mr. Connolly, Ms. Jennifer Coakwell, a teacher at Spruce Pine Montessori School (a small, rural, independent elementary and middle school), also felt confident about her response to the events of September 11th (personal communication, December 12, 2001).  Her response, however, differed perhaps due to differences in the schools themselves, including a much smaller student population and administrative structure at Spruce Pine and the lack of a television set in every classroom.

According to Ms. Coakwell, on the morning of September 11th, she had just concluded “a sharing circle [where] we all come together in the morning and share and talk.  One of the mothers came in and called me out into the hallway and told me that the World Trade Center had just been attacked, and I was just kind of shocked and unbelieving.”  Ms. Coakwell stated that after discussing it with her colleague next door and learning that she was going to tell her students, she decided to also.  “And so I called the kids to circle and I was feeling really panicked.  I was trying to be very calm and just say that something is happening and we need to participate right now.  So we turned on the radio and listened to it for 45 minutes.  And so we just listened to it on and off.  They were very silent.  We don’t have cable so we couldn’t watch it, so it was all going on in their heads, the images they were seeing.  I was telling the kids that when things like this happen, the news is usually prepared and it’s read and reviewed.  There were just these long pauses on the radio and then you’d hear, ‘There’s something else happening!’”

            After hearing students’ concerns and questions about relatives or people they knew in New York City, Ms. Coakwell offered them the opportunity to call their parents but none did.  For the remainder of the day, she reported that they listened to the radio some more and that students were quiet and orderly but not productive.  “They’re very focused usually.  They wanted to be able to accomplish whatever it is that they wanted to do that day but they just weren’t.  So then the next day we talked about it.  We have a class meeting on Wednesdays and so we talked about it.  And the kids were just saying what they had heard from their parents.  What I noticed the most was just how they were really trying to simplify it and break it down into something they could understand.  And they had it all figured out and simplified – very black and white, but it was also very simplified.”

            Similar to Mr. Connolly’s description of students at his school feeling futility, Ms. Coakwell’s students also felt the need to do something tangible. “They wanted to do something.  They felt a really strong need.  So we talked about what we wanted to do and they said they wanted to collect money.  So we collected money and sent it off to the Red Cross.”  In addition to collecting money, Ms. Coakwell adapted a previously scheduled class hike as a means of dealing with the tragedy. 

“The hike was scheduled for Friday.  Thursday, I decided that I wanted to focus on healing and peace and so I talked with the kids about it and asked them to each bring something to share that would relate to peace in some way on our hike.  And they were pretty into it.  So then on Friday they came to school and they had a message written on the board that they needed to find a space and sit silently, not doing anything.”  After leaving school and arriving at the hiking sight, “they each walked silently with maybe ten to twenty yards in between them and when we got to the halfway point, they all shared what they had brought with them.  And the things were beautiful.  It was really intense, deeply moving, and profound.  And then we continued to the river and then they all chose their special spots and we spent an hour by ourselves.  They all had their journals with them so that they could respond to what was going on.” 

            While the hike was the only activity specifically related to September 11th in Ms. Coakwell’s classroom, she indicated that they discussed and followed the events by reading Time For Kids and newspapers, and that the discussions often led to heated debates about what the United States should do in response.  “It’s funny, because I’ve learned so much about their family’s politics just from what the kids have said.”  She suggested that her role as a teacher continues to be affected because she feels the need to mediate debates relating to September 11th.  “I felt it was delicate to not let anyone offend anyone else.  All opinions are valid.”

                Analytical commentary.  Ms. Coakwell’s initial response of listening to the radio reports with the students, inviting them to call their parents, and allowing them to do something tangible by raising money, follows the previously mentioned first tenet of Dewey’s – selecting features of the school environment appropriate to the ages of her students.  Her adaptation of the hike as an attempt at removing students from their routines while connecting them to the larger events aligns with Dewey’s second function of the school environment.  “In the second place, it is the business of the school environment to eliminate, so far as possible, the unworthy features of the existing environment from influence upon mental habitudes.  It establishes a purified medium of action” (1916, p. 20).  Given her comments about the subsequent debates among the students, the step of momentarily taking them out of their physical habitudes perhaps has led to at least a modicum of understanding and empathy for classmates’ opinions.  Further, her actions suggest that an activity specifically adapted or created for an unexpected event can be a secondary step toward integrating that event into the classroom.

Exploris Middle School: September 11th As Curriculum

Ms. Brady Rochford, a teacher at Exploris Charter Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina (a small, urban, public middle school) stated that she and her students “turned a difficult situation into the curriculum” (November, 2001).  As with the responses described by Mr. Connolly and Ms. Coakwell, she too felt confident about her actions on and following September 11th.  However, the description of her response further clarifies that existing and differing features among these three schools played an influential role in determining educators’ responses to September 11th.

Ms. Rochford’s school is physically adjacent to and philosophically affiliated with the Exploris Museum in downtown Raleigh.  According to the museum’s website (January 28, 2002), “In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, we are all seeking greater understanding and effective ways to respond.  At Exploris, the mission that has always guided us – to encourage people to respect differences, appreciate similarities and make connections with the people of the world – gives us a sense of direction in that quest.  Certainly, this need has never been more clearly demonstrated.  As the first interactive museum about the world, we focus on how the world works and the role each person can play in our world.”  As evident from her following account of responding to September 11th, Ms. Rochford and the school’s administration utilize both the physical facilities and philosophy of the museum.   

            On the morning of September 11th, Ms. Rochford stated that she and her “prime group,” or homeroom, of 14 sixth grade students were conducting their regular morning meeting when they were interrupted by a school administrator.  He asked her to escort the students into the museum’s movie theater where “images larger than life” of the plane crashes were being broadcast.  After seeing the second tower of the World Trade Center collapse and feeling “kind of stuck,” Ms. Rochford took her prime group out of the theater to discuss what they had just seen.  In addition to the students’ questions, “kids thought it was a nuclear attack and feared terrorist coming to Raleigh,” Ms. Rochford stated that she was also “in shock.”  At the time, her discussion after leaving the theater was the only activity related to the events because “students went onto other classes and we did stay on a regular schedule for the rest of the day to create normality and security.”

            The next day, however, Ms. Rochford and her students utilized a component of Exploris’s educational philosophy, inquiry-based learning, to respond to the events.  “Exploris asks students to create their own curriculum through creating questions and then finding a theme.  We had just finished the first theme so our next questioning process focused on the attacks.”  According to Ms. Rochford, she and the students placed their questions on a large sheet of poster paper and then began looking for a theme that would connect the questions into a curricular unit.  From these questions, the theme of “Looking Thru Lenses” emerged whereby students would have “the opportunity to look at [them] selves and at other people” in terms of personal and international identity.  One of the resulting products of this unit was a school-sponsored panel of representatives from a variety of religious affiliations.

            In addition to feeling that she provided her students with a productive outlet for responding to the events of September 11th by using inquiry-based learning, Ms. Rochford’s belief that it is “important [for students] to critically analyze and think independently without as much bias connected to the theme of the unit.  It helped.  We turned a difficult situation into the curriculum.”

Analytical commentary.  While viewing images of the plane crashes and towers’ collapse on the museum’s theater screens may have initially caught Ms. Rochford and her students off-guard, she appears to have sought a more active response in her subsequent actions.  By attempting to regain a sense of “normality and security” for the remainder of September 11th, she worked toward reestablishing the school as a place of security and continuity.  In turning “a difficult situation into the curriculum,” Ms. Rochford and her students responded to the events through an inquiry-based learning process.  According to Ms. Rochford and the museum’s stated mission, this process, particularly in light of September 11th, is intended to encourage students to consider “the role each person can play in our world.”  Encouraging this process within the school environment at Exploris jibes with Dewey’s third function for the school in a democratic society.  “In the third place, it is the office of the school environment to balance the various elements in the social environment, and to see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment” (1916, p. 18).  This incorporation of the unexpected into the curriculum suggests a third step that is possible after Dewey’s first two “offices of the school environment” are present     

Conclusion:  Reasoning Behind the Response

It is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate when events such as those that took place on September 11th will occur and require educators to make difficult decisions about how to respond.  One thing is certain, however, educators need to have established reasoning behind their responses.  Apparent from the three educators’ descriptions of their responses, the reasoning behind their responses had to occur spontaneously but can also be framed within patterns supported by Dewey’s functions of the school (ibid). 

In a general sense, after the differences in schools and unexpected events are taken into account, we can look to Dewey’s functions as suggestions for how to respond to tragedies such as September 11th.  The consistent theme of wanting to make students feel safe and secure was described by all three educators and, as stated previously, is allied with Dewey’s “first office” (ibid) of the school environment.  Similarly, the consistent theme of wanting to create an opportunity for students to actively do something in response and within their school environments is related to Dewey’s “second [and third] office of the school environment” (ibid).   While Ms. Coakwell’s and Ms. Rochford’s descriptions of activities within the context of their roles as classroom teachers differed from Mr. Connolly’s description of his actions as an administrator, the fact that he and his crisis team established a structure for discussing the events within the classrooms suggest that he was also operating from a progression of response.       

This idea of a progression of response modeled on Dewey’s “offices of the school environment” (ibid) was noted by Ms. Rochford when she stated that “teaching about September 11th has to occur before September 11th” and is critical in considering using any unexpected event within the curriculum.  For the prospective teachers in my Methods class, this blend of Dewey’s theories and the actions of contemporary educators provide a suggestion toward creating reasoning behind their responses.   


Connolly, R., & Rochford, B.  (2001, November).  Teaching through September 11th.  Forum conducted at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Dewey, J.  (1916).  Democracy and education.  New York: Macmillan Company.

Dworkin, M. (Ed.).  (1959).  Dewey on education.  New York:  Teachers College Press.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D.  (1987).  Literacy: Reading the word & the world.  New York: Bergin & Garvey.

Goldstein, J.  (2001, September 17).  Teachers respond to terror.  The News & Observer, pp. 1B,3B.

Goodman, E.  (2001, September 15).  In a prime-time crisis, go to the helpers.  The News & Observer, p. 16A.

Hirsch, E.D.  (1996).  The schools we need and why we don’t have them.  New York: Doubleday.

Hui, T., & Goldstein, J.  (2001, September 12).  Schools limit talks on attacks.  The News & Observer, p. 2AA.



Dr. William O'Steen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at


Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.