By STEPHEN WESSON
The Library’s Educational Outreach Division is dedicated to helping teachers unlock the educational power of the primary sources in the Library’s collections. Among those countless cultural treasures, the materials in the Library’s “September 11, 2001, Documentary Project” stand out. Since the 2005 launch of the online collection on the Library’s American Memory website, educators have had a unique chance to explore an instructionally—and emotionally—powerful topic with their students.
“Primary sources are the raw materials of history,” said Kathleen McGuigan, the Library’s acting director of Educational Outreach. “Analyzing those sources is a very effective way to help students ask engaged questions, develop critical thinking skills and construct knowledge. The Library’s materials documenting the response to the September 11 attacks let students examine an event of global importance from a personal perspective, and encourage them to think critically about its impact on their lives in the present day.”
Choosing to develop substantial teacher resources around the “September 11 Documentary Project” was not a difficult decision. The oral-history interviews, photographs, artwork and other artifacts were collected shortly after the attacks, and, therefore, reflect a raw, immediate emotional response to horrific events. In addition, the attacks are so recent that their political and cultural consequences are still being felt today. And the events documented in this collection are still fresh in the memory of most adults, and some students. It is a rare opportunity for students to compare Library of Congress primary sources with first-hand accounts of people they may know personally.
To create educational materials to support this unique collection, the Library’s Educational Outreach staff turned to Laurel Singleton, a longtime education expert who has developed materials for the Library for many years. She began the work of developing a Collection Connection—a compilation of teaching activities and background information that can be used by teachers to use primary sources in the classroom.
Laurel Singleton began by identifying her approach to this challenging collection.
“I thought that there was a tension between having students analyze the documents as primary sources—approaching them as young scholars—while respecting the emotions of the people who shared their experiences of 9/11. I knew that many of the students might recall those same emotions of fear, anger and sadness as they worked with the documents. I tried to keep that in mind as I worked.”
Singleton continued, “I also wanted to highlight the strong sense of community that the nation experienced during the period after the attacks, while acknowledging the many disagreements about how to respond, why the attacks happened, and so on. That for me was a very important message to convey.”
Although she had written about September 11 in the past, Singleton still found it emotionally exhausting to work with the materials from the Library’s collection.
“I spent a lot of time with tears running down my face as I read or listened to people’s interviews and memories,” said Singleton. “Of course, there were other moments of being touched by people’s resilience and their willingness to reach out to each other. One of my favorites was the interview with Lillie Haws, who owned a bar in Brooklyn. Some firefighters came into her bar and people rallied around them and tried to buoy them up. And she remarked on how surprised she was that the firefighters could laugh, but then she realized they found comfort in laughter. That was beautiful.”
The completed Collection Connection provides teachers with background information and classroom activities that can help their students engage critically with the primary sources in the September 11 collection.
The Arts and Humanities section highlights many of the works created as memorials and responses to the attacks, including message boards, poems and drawings. While students are encouraged to appreciate these works and the strong feelings that led to their creation, students are also asked to examine them closely and ask questions about the messages they convey, their intended audience and the points of view of their creators.
The September 11 attacks produced many powerful, emotionally intense responses. Therefore, the teaching activities produced by the Library seek to help students explore what these responses can tell them, not only about the attacks, but about the nature of memory, creativity and the complex ways in which people seek to make sense of extraordinary events.
Singleton sees the September 11 collection as key to helping students come to a deeper understanding not only of the tragic events of the day, but of human nature, as well.
“I think that students can learn that, even with events that we may have experienced personally, if we use our critical-thinking and historical-analysis skills, we can start to understand those events more fully. We can be informed by our emotions without being ruled by them. I think students cam learn a lot about how people respond to tragedy in both productive and not-so-productive ways,” Singleton said.
“I hope they can also see through these documents that it’s possible to pull together as a community even if they have disagreements. That’s a healthy thing in a democracy. And perhaps they will see that the arts are a good way to express how you feel about tragic events.”
The Teaching Experience
Since its availability, countless educators have integrated the online “September 11, 2001, Documentary Project” into their teaching.
One teacher reported on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog that she created an online gallery of primary sources from the Library’s September 11 collection, which displays while Allen Jackson’s song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” plays in the background.
“The students observed and reflected upon each source. Then we listened to a response to the event by a girl from North Carolina whose family is of Asian decent. I then have them think about the impact this event had on different people of the time. How did 9/11 affect the nation, the people, and how does it impact people today? Kids have said that they felt a better understanding of why their parents have such a strong feeling about this time. Others want to learn more.”
The project has also been useful in teachers’ professional development. Anne Bell, director of the Teaching with Primary Sources program at the University of Northern Colorado, used the collection in a teachers’ workshop last spring. Her purpose was “to showcase this collection and help teachers generate ideas for the upcoming 10th anniversary. The morning focused on children’s art and meaning with a guest facilitator from our faculty of art education, and an insightful phone conversation with the teacher in Knoxville, Tenn., whose children created the art featured in the American Memory collection.
On Sept. 1, 2011, Danna Bell-Russel of the Library’s Educational Outreach Division posted on the Library’s teachers blog a range of ideas for teaching about 9/11 in the classroom. She cites the September 11 Documentary Project collection and the Library’s other online resources, such as “Today in History” and the “Witness and Response” exhibition.
She observed, “Part of the power of teaching with primary sources comes from their immediacy—eyewitness accounts of historic events can have an emotional impact that secondary sources might lack. This is especially true of primary sources relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”
Stephen Wesson is an educational resource specialist in the Educational Outreach Division of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.