Commemorating 9/11: Including ELLs

"The Night Before"

Learn how educators in a northern New Jersey school district found ways to ensure that ELLs were included in activities commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Student painting: The Night Before

Editor's note: This article was written in 2011 to mark the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The activity ideas are relevant in any study of 9/11, however, and the resources have been updated to include more recent additions.

Keep in mind that many ELLs and their families were not in the U.S. when the events of 9/11 occurred, even though their lives may have been touched by the aftermath and the resulting policy and societal changes.


As we observe the anniversary of 9/11 this year, it's important to remember that our commemoration is more than a moment of silence — it's an important educational opportunity for students, including English language learners (ELLs).

In North Plainfield, NJ, a school district where half of the population speaks a language other than English, we have successfully integrated ELLs into a pilot program introducing a curriculum and discussion about 9/11 in the classroom. What follows are some of the lessons we learned from our experiences, as well as ideas for engaging ELLs in discussions about 9/11 and related issues.

Background Information

9/11 curriculum project

Recognizing the need for an engaging curriculum written with sensitivity, in July 2011, the 4 Action Initiative (comprised of the Families of September 11, the Liberty Science Center, and the New Jersey State Commission on Holocaust Education) launched a new curriculum entitled "Learning from the Challenges of Our Time: Global Security, Terrorism, and 9/11 in the Classroom." Designed with activities for elementary, middle, and high school, the curriculum includes the following units:

  • Human Behavior
  • From the Playground to the World Stage: Violence, Agression, and Terrorism
  • Historical Context of Terrorism
  • 9/11/01: A Contemporary Case Study
  • Challenges and Consequences in a Post 9/11 World
  • Remembrance and the Creation of Memory
  • Building Better Futures: Narrative, Recovery, and Responsibility

Prior to the launch of the curriculum, the program was piloted in a number of districts across New Jersey, including North Plainfield. We created a committee to design a series of educational events between September 2010 and June 2012 highlighted on our 9/11 Commemoration Website that would complement the curriculum such as:

  • service learning
  • a field trip to Ground Zero
  • a "traveling" Veterans Day ceremony that was held in different schools

Additional community activities included:

  • the planting of roses in a remembrance garden at each school
  • an expanded blood drive
  • the inclusion of ROTC in ceremonies and events
  • the use of philately and political cartoons
  • classroom door decorating
  • an Avenue of Flags in North Plainfield
  • the design of patches for athletic uniforms
  • a request for Pride (NJEA) funding
  • the creation of wish wreaths
  • the production of T-shirts
  • red/white/blue days
  • wearing a boutonnière or carrying a flower that was adorned with a red, white, and blue ribbon at graduation.

Including ELLs in Commemoration Activities

In North Plainfield, we took an interdisciplinary approach that would include ELLs in the classroom lessons and community activities. As you can see from the photos, texts, and power points on our website, speaking a language other than English did not prevent pupils, staff, or community members from participating in our commemoration projects and programs. We did encounter some challenges, however, and our staff had to find creative ways to address them:

  • Background knowledge: Students often had limited background knowledge about the events of 9/11. The teachers provided additional background information through the use of translations, real world vocabulary and discussions, and the inclusion of the history of New York and New Jersey. They used the Internet, books, and other resources available in the media center and libraries to supplement their lessons.
  • Relevance: Many kids, including ELLs, felt that this event wasn't relevant to their lives, especially if they were only 3 or 4 years old in 2001. We discussed with our students the concept of a global community and coming together in a time of need. We also discussed the importance of remembering those we have lost, explaining the difference between a commemoration and a celebration.
  • Prejudice: Unfortunately, we found that there were undercurrents of prejudice or underlying feeling of blame and resentment among some of our staff towards ELLs. We had an open conversation about these feelings while reminding staff to "check their personal feelings and politics" at the door. (We also found that inviting staff to be part of the planning and implementation committees encouraged more opportunities for positive participation.)


On the other hand, we also found that the curriculum offered opportunities we might not have otherwise had with our ELLs, such as:

  • Discussion themes: Some of the important topics that emerge from discussions about 9/11 include rebirth, resilience, patriotism, facing challenges, and adapting to change.
  • Multilingual activities: During the month of November, each school librarian and various staff members incorporated the book America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven into their lessons. We created a large display in the high school depicting a scene from the book as well as a poster size page of the story written in English, Spanish and French.
  • Literacy activities: We created opportunities for students to use their first languages in our "I Have a Dream" project. Typically, students learn about and discuss Dr. King, Jr. in their English or History courses. We turned the tables a bit, asking students and staff in all courses except English and History to explore the "I Have a Dream" theme. For example, in math classes, the students wrote about their dreams from a mathematical perspective. In the World Language courses, students wrote about their dreams in a language other than English and presented them to each other in that language.
  • Service activities: Projects such as crocheting afghans for service personnel, planting rose bushes, and creating Wish Wreaths were both tactile and visual, and students could participate with and without advanced proficiency in spoken or written English. (When appropriate, we found that asking students to write or sign thank-you notes to members of the community who supported their activities was very helpful and created even more good will towards the project.)

Global response

ELLs may be particularly interested in the global aspects of 9/11, as well as the responses of citizens and dignitaries around the world in the past decade. For example, the Tear Drop Memorial in Bayonne, NJ is a gift from the Russian people and artist Z. Tesereteii. Some activities that focus on the global response include:

  • Researching 9/11 memorials: Have student research 9/11 memorials throughout the U.S. or in other countries and create a travel brochure. This can be a collaborative student project with the product presented through a power point, poster, paper or poster sized brochure, commercial or a spoken presentation. Invite students or their family members who visited some of the locations to your class to share their experiences.
  • Researching international responses: Ask ELLs to research the responses of other nations to the 9/11 attacks — perhaps those their own country or those of a different nation. What kinds of memorials, vigils, and services were held? How were citizens from the many nations who died in the attacks honored by their fellow citizens?

Looking ahead

During the coming school year, we will continue to look for ways to make sure ELLs can participate in all of our commemoration activities, from book discussions and creating visual displays, to Veterans Day and Flag Day ceremonies and the making of Wish Wreaths. We will also continue to encourage the participation of members of our NJROTC who serve as color guard, and members of our band and choral ensemble will continue to contribute their talents to our programs.

In addition, we will be participating in Project Rebirth, an initiative organized around a documentary combining time-lapse photography with the stories of individuals shaped by the events of 9/11. We will show the film to interested staff and use it for professional development purposes, and then staff will have the opportunity to share the film with high school students.

Final thoughts

Through our discussions, activities, and cultural events, we have found that the language barrier doesn't have to be the obstacle it sometimes appears to be; instead, we are overcoming those barriers and fostering a sense of unity for all members of our community. We invite you to learn more about our projects and share your projects as well during this important time of reflection for our country.

Classroom Resources

The following resources provide helpful ideas and guidance related to teaching about 9/11. We also encourage educators to take a look at How Schools Can Create a Safe Environment for Muslim Students.

Lesson plan collections and ideas

PBS Newshour Classroom

Organizations and Museums


Resources from The New York Times

Teaching 9/11 to New Generations

Books for kids and teens

About the authors

Hope Blecher-Sass, Ed.D., is the Supervisor of Language Arts Literacy, Social Studies and Library/Media Services for the North Plainfield, NJ Public School District. She can be reached at [email protected]. Diana Sefchik is the Supervisor of ESL/Bilingual Education, World Languages, and Academic Support for the North Plainfield, NJ Public School District. She can be reached at [email protected].


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.
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Dr. Blecher-Sass and Diana Sefchik have presented a wealth of ideas and activities that do more than simply address the remembrance of a tragic and pivotal day in American History. They provide stimulating courses of action that affords educational opportunities for all students, encourage awareness and offer solutions in response to occurances that affect world events.

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