How 9/11 is taught in Northland schools

Northland history teachers use artifacts, memory gathering and discussion to teach today's students about the attack that happened before they were born.

Parents drop off their children at Bay View Elementary School in Proctor on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Samantha Erkkila / Duluth News Tribune
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Proctor High School social studies teacher Nathan Johnson has been teaching students about 9/11 since that very day and has done so every year since.

He’s gone from teaching students who were crowded around a TV in Floodwood's high school's library watching the news coverage from that day unfold, to teaching students who were not yet born when the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon happened.

“When it happened, the students I had had family in the military. Many of them went and served. For sure in the first three to five years, it was very immediate. It was very much a personal experience for them,” Johnson said. “We would talk about the stories. ‘Where were you? What do you remember?’”

Cloquet High School American history teacher Chris Swanson was teaching on the day as well. He remembers getting a phone call from a fellow teacher telling him to turn on the TV.

“And I kind of laugh about the fact that the TV I had back then had a pull knob and was a big box TV on a big cart in the corner of the room with a VCR attached,” Swanson said. “It was my first week of teaching at Cloquet.”


Swanson used to focus a lot of his teaching about the event on collective memory. At first, he’d have students gather stories from their own experiences and memories of that day. Now, he has them gather memories from others who were alive at the time.

For Johnson, it’s a chance to illustrate to students the importance of history and how it influences who they are today, right at the top of the school year. It’s also an opportunity to emphasize that how one interprets an event in history depends on their position in the world.

“Trying to get them to understand that history does impact them is important and 9/11 helps me do that. One of my themes for the whole entire course is a famous quote: ‘Who we are is who we were,’” Johnson said. “How I experienced 9/11 is very different than the firefighters, but they're both accurate experiences of 9/11. And that's the story of history. All those perspectives are important.”

Carlton middle school teacher Ryan Schmidt likes to focus on some of the positive impacts that came about after the attacks.

A student walks into Bay View Elementary School in Proctor on the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. Samantha Erkkila / Duluth News Tribune

“It did bring people together. There were people who ran towards the danger instead of away from it and were able to help a lot of people and save lives,” Schmidt said. “There are survivor accounts that I like to include, which talk about how people came together to rescue those trapped under the rubble.”

Schmidt also likes to switch up his focus every year since he teaches students in sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades.


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“Last year, we talked about the event and then our focus was on the places that the terrorists chose to attack and why they would choose those places and what those symbols meant for America,” Schmidt said. “Like the economic center of the United States was the World Trade Center; the military center is the Pentagon. The fourth plane that was trying to get to the Capitol building, which is the seat of our government. The kids were really interested in that, to learn why those places were chosen.”

Johnson said he first tries to gauge the maturity level of the students in each class before deciding what materials he wants to use to help tell the story of 9/11, usually on or around the anniversary. Class starts with a discussion so he can ask students about what they know and meet them where they’re at.

Sometimes students bring up conspiracy theories, which Johnson said can lend itself to a teachable moment and he’ll walk students through how to find an accurate answer from a credible source.

Swanson brings in artifacts he’s kept on hand since that day. He has copies of Duluth News Tribune newspapers from Sept. 12, 2001, as well as a CNN tape of the live feed from the attacks.

“As those memories begin to fade, it’s important to use these items like physical papers as they make things more real,” Swanson said. “Going to see the new tower or the museum isn’t possible for many of our students. But we can talk about how we think about these things. That’s something we try to do every day in history education.”


Related Topics: EDUCATION
Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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