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What it’s like to teach 9/11 now that it’s history for today’s high schoolers

High school civics teacher Erin Stevenson said she’s trying to bring the emotion back into her lectures about the morning America was attacked.

Providence High School civics teacher Erin Stevenson in her classroom.
Providence High School civics teacher Erin Stevenson in her classroom.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Twenty years ago, Erin Stevenson was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Connecticut, walking across campus after her early-morning history lecture. It was the second week of classes and when she walked into her dormitory, her resident assistant grabbed her and told her she “had to come look at this.”

She joined other students, huddled in her RA’s dorm around the television. They watched as a looping clip on the news kept showing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center. At first, Stevenson and the others thought it was a horrible accident.

She went into her dorm, threw her book bag down and turned on her own television, set high on her shelf. It was there that she watched with horror as another plane barreled into the second tower. And it was then that she realized that crash, on the morning of Sept. 11, was no accident.

She recently recalled walking back across campus later that morning, heading to her music appreciation class, when the quad was eerily quiet. There was no music or laughing. Students whispered to each other. She could only make out key words: Plane. Attack. People jumping.


When she walked into the lecture hall, the professor performed his typical routine and played a classical song.

She sat at her desk and listened as the song played. Piano keys were pressed down solemnly in the background as other students around her were crying softly.

Smoke rises over the southern Manhattan skyline without the World Trade Center as members of the public watch from Brooklyn the following day.
Smoke rises over the southern Manhattan skyline without the World Trade Center as members of the public watch from Brooklyn the following day.HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP via Getty Images

Two decades later, the feeling she had that morning still grips her when she’s standing in front of her own classroom, retelling the events of 9/11 in her history courses. Stevenson, now just a few years shy of 40, has been working in education for nearly 16 years. She works at East Providence High School, teaching civics and psychology. And helping this generation of students — who were all born after 9/11 happened — understand what a mark that attack left on American society is history to them.


“It still gives me goosebumps talking about it now,” she said. “I still get choked up.”

This year, the 20th anniversary is coming full circle. President Biden, the fourth to sit in the Oval Office since that day, declared last week that the war in Afghanistan was “over.” But while American troops evacuated, many of those Afghans who helped US forces were left behind.

Each year, Stevenson has prepared herself for the questions students may have, not ever watching the live tapes that she and millions of other Americans did that day.

“When you’re in the moment, you don’t know that you’re living what will be considered part of American history until years later. I’m a history major, a history teacher, but it still took reflection, studying, and a better grasp on the world for me to understand what happened that day,” she said. “And this year, it certainly feels different. It feels heavier.”

It’s not just because it’s a major anniversary, she said, but because the children sitting in her classroom are living what will become a major chapter in world history: an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 4.5 million people worldwide. Government-mandated lockdowns. Social distancing away from peers. And where politics, instead of medicine, have shaped people’s personal decisions.

Teaching 9/11 as the event is a difficult subject. There’s no standardized test or guide that today’s social studies teachers are expected to follow. There are triggering video clips and photographs. The idea that Americans were attacked on their own soil is still a disturbing feeling. Most textbooks are outdated. Those that are not, are not often afforded by most public school districts.


Stevenson turns to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for lesson plans, plays documentaries such as “Boatlift: An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience” in front of the class, and references documents such as executive orders from former President George W. Bush to help her students understand what happened. Her students thumb through photos, newspaper clippings, and watch the news reports of that day, like the one she did in her dorm room that morning.

After seeing those clips and interviews with first responders, heroes, and loved ones of those killed that day; she makes them think critically and debate if they would have invaded Iraq. She said she does not accept one word answers, but has the students provide evidence to back up their arguments.

It’s often the case, she explained, that American history courses are taught broadly— starting in the 1600s, and then attempting to reach lesson plans that span into the 1990s. While much of what is grouped as “history” is oftentimes interpreted by students as something that occurred “many, many years ago,” Stevenson said she tries to humanize what happened.

“For these students, who didn’t live through it, they won’t have that emotional response to it as the adults that remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news and saw it,” she said. “When I first started teaching, I tried to take the emotion — and my own feelings — out of it. Now, I’m trying to add that emotion back in.”


She added, “I want them to understand why it was so impactful. It’s not just about who attacked us or how. It’s remembering that people died that day. How people responded. And what kind of country America became because of it.”

JUSTIN LANE/Associated Press

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.