Imag(in)ing History Across Generations

Mimi Dyer , Kennesaw Moutain High School, Marietta, GA


“American communities are forming and reforming, dividing and combining, all around us.”  When we first wrote that sentence for our KCAC program overview in 1999, little did we know that it would be quite so true. Our American community has evolved over the last 225 years, yet not since Pearl Harbor has it changed so drastically as a result of a single day—September 11, 2001.

The month that followed provided one of those “wonderful” yet, in this case, horrific teaching moments when we could choose to forge ahead with our prescribed semester plans or pause to reflect on the import of the times. We have often referred to KCAC’s search for seminal moments of upheaval that bring about change in the American fabric. For many, this day became a defining moment of change—a time when we asked ourselves hard questions about beliefs, traditions, duty, and differences. I, like many teachers, did nothing for a week or so; then I came to realize that as much as I needed to “talk” with my kids about this terrible tragedy, they also needed to talk with me. So I went back to the KCAC belief that “local communities continually redefine themselves in relation to national and sometimes international communities.”  And there I had the answer to how we could discuss the issue. So I defined for them the conflicts beginning with Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael and how those decisions made thousands of years ago have impacted our international—and thus our American—community today.

For this lesson I combined two of our guiding principles: the restorative and generative nature of writing and the power of images. Because we know that students learn to become critical thinkers by engaging in activities that are relevant to their lives, I challenged them to remember what they were doing when the airliners crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. And I asked them to find an image depicting events of September 11 or after and to write a letter to their future grandchildren, explaining the image and why they chose to preserve it for them. What emerged were heartfelt messages from one generation to another, cajoling, imploring, remonstrating, and demanding remembrance of this day. They became makers of literature by creating artifacts for future generations.

Instructional sequence

1. Select an image about events including and since September 11, 2001, to preserve for your grandchildren. This could be a downloaded image, a newspaper or magazine photo, an editorial cartoon, a drawing, or a collage.

2.Write a one-page letter to them in explanation of the image and why you chose to preserve it for them. (This can be formatted informally—date flush right, “Dear _____” flush left.)

3.Don’t forget the closing; make up a “grandparenty” name for yourself, and affix your signature under it.

4.You may download the image and insert it into your letter, or you may mount the image and letter on a sheet of construction paper (or two). The object is to create a wall of memories for the next generation. We will mount selected pieces on the bulletin board and wall outside our room.

5.Share images and letters with class.

6.Write a reflection about the process and product.

Student artifact

Dear Grandchildren,

I am sorry that I must recount to you this story of what has recently happened, but it must be told.  These acts of terrorism may have damaged buildings and hundreds of lives, but it did not damage us as a nation.  It just made us stronger.  We showed that we will unite in a time of crisis, and that we can, and will, come together to defend our precious freedoms. 

“A plane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Centers” was the first remark from our shocked teacher, trying to explain what was being shown on the television.  It was only 8:50 a.m. and our tired eyes stared in awe at the images of the burning building.  Not knowing what had happened, we were eager to find out more.  The news anchors were speculating that it was a terrorist attack, maybe a hijacked plane, but questions of why or who were left unanswered.  We continued to stare at the classroom television, and just ten minutes later a second plane crashed into the other building of these immense twin towers.  The realization of these attacks was finally starting to settle in when one of the towers collapsed, proceeded by the second one.  Two of our tallest towers, filled with innocent people of all races, backgrounds, and beliefs, had just been reduced to smoldering rubble. 

The next few days seemed to fly by, the news channels filled with nothing but rising death counts and accounts of workers spending endless hours digging through the wreckage.  But contrary to the terrorists’ beliefs, we were not weakened or destroyed by these attempts, we were strengthened.  More American flags were seen in those upcoming weeks than ever before and people became united as one to get through and recover from these times.  A month later, President George W. Bush sent the first wave of attacks in the war against terrorism.  Afghanistan is feeling the repercussions of harboring such criminals and we will not stop at that.  Usama bin Laden is now known by all as the most wanted terrorist and suspect of being behind the attacks.  Nobody has any idea of what the near future will bring, but I can assure you that we will stay together as a nation and put our differences aside, only to make it a better, safer place for you to live in.  We must not forget these times.

Love, Grandpa Aaron

Editor’s Note: Aaron’s letter accompanied a collage of Internet images from many copyrighted sources.

Student reflections

“I still don’t quite know what to think about the events that occurred on September 11. I do think that the series of projects and activities has caused me to reflect on those events and to try and tap into what I am really feeling.”

-- Robert

“Now I have something to pass on. They may not be good memories, but they are important ones.”

<> --Gaetana

“Writing this letter finally allowed me to express my true feelings on this issue. I felt this was a healthy step in beginning the healing process. I began to write down things and emotions that I did not even know were inside me. This letter forced me to look inside myself and for the first time in my life, I did not like what I saw.”

-- Jakina

Teacher reflection

I was in the classroom with some of these students when the two planes flew into the Twin Towers. I was with them when they stared incredulously at the television screen, silent screams echoing across each group huddled on the floor. I was with them when the second attack hit the Pentagon, symbol of America’s strength. And I was with them when they cried for all the husbandless wives, the wifeless husbands, the parentless children, the childless parents.

As we moved through the weeks after the attack, we talked peripherally about national and international events, strategies, and countermeasures. But we talked distantly, as if the whole tragedy had happened to someone else. I, like most of them, became slightly depressed and unable to pinpoint the origin of the malaise. I felt disconnected from what I was doing in the classroom and what I was doing at home. I became desensitized to the 24-hour news broadcasts and the latest breaking stories.

Finally I realized that while I had watched television and read newspapers, I had not really verbalized anything that would allow me a catharsis. When I asked my students about that possibility, they agreed that they too had not had the opportunity to reflect, to offer their views, to be heard. So I came up with the above assignment as a way for them to have a somewhat structured venue for their thoughts and feelings. I felt that writing a letter to future generations would elevate their thinking so that they would seriously consider how they want to be perceived. In effect, I asked each of them to take on the role of an adult in a fourteen-year-old body.

Their letters are powerful reflections about many aspects surrounding September 11. Some focused on the attacks themselves, chronicling exactly what happened; some addressed the lives lost and the ramifications for families; some became flag-waving patriots committed to rebuilding buildings and lives; and others talked about how it affected them, how they changed because of a single day.

Naturally, there were some who simply completed the assignment without a thought other than doing what I asked them to do, but most took it seriously and created works that they will preserve for their future grandchildren. However, whatever the motivation, when they read the letters to the class, many of us were moved to tears. This act of sharing brought us together as a classroom community in a way that a pre-planned activity never could. We looked into others’ hearts and souls—we nodded heads, we held hands, we hugged.

And while this experience reflects KCAC beliefs and goals, it embodies something much larger—our ability to reach out to each other in times of emotional need and to respond with thought, care, and respect.

Curricular Crossing

Suggestions on how you might adapt this lesson for a different classroom setting

-- Students could interview parents, grandparents, and community elders about other important moments in U.S. history: the Pearl Harbor attack; the deaths of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; the return of POW’s in the Viet Nam War; the Challenger disaster; or the resignation of Richard Nixon. Perhaps one of the choices for the writing that would follow this assignment might be to exchange letters with the people interviewed.

-- Students might also use this format in conjunction with a study of regional literature. In Nebraska, for example, the novels My Antonia by Willa Cather and A Lantern In Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich contain many historical events of the state. The biography Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt tells the history of the settlement from a Native American perspective. Students could re-create these historical moments by writing letters in the voice of the characters in the literature. These two assignments would also allow students to analyze the ways that the world has grown smaller in the last half-century. The national and international events that these characters would have experienced were not known in the same way that students today might be aware of world events.


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