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Teaching 9/11 to a generation of kids who weren't alive when it happened

The 9/11 Memorial in New York City
The 9/11 Memorial in New York City

On September 11, 2001, Doug Nelson had just started his first year of teaching.

“I was sitting in my room getting ready and my colleague came in and said someone just crashed into the twin towers. As the gravity of the day moved on, I remember telling my students, we need to stop and process this right now,” he recalls.

Every year since then, Nelson, now a social studies teacher at Rhinelander High School, teaches about that day by telling stories.

He tells his students about what it’s like to lose a former student and football player to the war in Afghanistan.

He remembers the phone call when his college buddy told him he was being deployed to Kuwait.

Nelson uses stories to keep this recent history alive.

“As long as we can keep telling the stories of the past, talking about how it influences now, it’s never passed,” he says.

But the lessons taught in schools today about 9/11 extend beyond stories about a collective experience of grief, loss and fear.

That day marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward war and privacy.

And it generated national discussion – and disagreement – about both.

“When I investigate 9/11 with my students, it’s not so much to figure out what happened that day,” says Will Losch, another social studies teacher at RHS. “It’s reflecting on how it changed us, how it changed our federal agencies, how we have to do things differently to keep people safe, and how that pushes up against the constitution at times.”

Losch says his job is to guide students through understanding different points of view.

“It’s teaching kids to empathize and that’s part of understanding,” he says. “And then trusting that there’s a lot of different conclusions that can be reached. More than just one.”

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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