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Born after the terror attacks, a generation of young people wonders, “What Happened on 9/11?” “Why did it happen?” “What was its impact on our country and the world?” Exploring these and other questions in a kid-friendly way, What Happened On September 11 provides a sensitive and informative account of the events of 9-11 for a young audience. Designed in response to children’s questions about the attacks, the film features kids in conversation with survivors and family members, historical segments, and classroom scenes exploring 9/11 through artwork and poetry.  Free resources and lesson plans accompany the film by the 9/11 Tribute Museum and Scholastic to make the subject accessible for students.

The short documentary follows students on a class trip to the 9/11 Tribute Museum in Lower Manhattan, where they hear personal accounts from Tribute school group guide Stephen Kern, who worked on the 62nd floor of the North Tower and recalls the evacuation and buildings collapse, and Tribute school group guide Matthew Crawford, whose father was a firefighter who was killed in the South Tower. Back in the classroom, the students create art projects and write poems about 9/11.

Education Materials

What Happened On September 11 explores the themes of emotion and expression, the value of sharing and hearing personal stories, and the importance of understanding the global context behind the 9/11 attacks. The resources below were created by teachers across the country to introduce these complex and sensitive topics into their lessons, with the intention of motivating students who are too young to remember understand and recognize the social costs of 9/11. Each lesson plan can be used in conjunction with a viewing of the documentary on HBO.

Exploring 9/11 in Creative Arts

One way to explore a topic like September 11th is by allowing students to explore their emotions creatively. As demonstrated in this excerpt from the HBO documentary What Happened on September 11, students can create beautiful works of art using sadness, empathy, and hope to express what they have learned in constructive and critical ways.

The Survivor Tree

Grades 6-12

Through an interdisciplinary approach that includes writing poetry from the vantage point of the Survivor Tree, students are encouraged to develop a deeper emotional connection to the events of 9/11, and will be better prepared to embrace pressing global issues.

Connecting Literature & Poetry to Current Events

Grade 7

Students will study the heroic actions of first responders on 9/11, and use the lenses of literature and Greek Mythology to better understand their motivations.

Remembering  9/11 Through Poetry, Drama and Stories

Grades 8-12

Students will conduct oral histories and analyze poetry to learn about the timeline of events on 9/11 and explore the immediate impact that the attacks had on families, nearby schools, and businesses.

Newspaper Headline Poetry

Grade 11

Students will explore the importance of the personal narrative, as well as how the 9/11 attacks impacted the course of history, by expressing their perceptions through analyzing and creating poetry.

Understanding 9/11 Through Personal Stories

A global tragedy like September 11th can sometimes obscure the impact it had on individual lives. As demonstrated in this excerpt from the HBO documentary What Happened on September 11, hearing a personal story can shine a light on the effects of terrorism on people’s everyday lives, and allows the students to relate to someone who was directly affected by the attacks.

Hallway of Heroes

Grade 8

Students will better understand the terms “hero” and “heroism” through a discussion about 9/11, first responders, and the creation of a poster to pay tribute to their personal hero.

Comparing & Contrasting Oral Histories of 9/11

Grades 9-12

Students will conduct interviews to foster an emotional connection to and gain a better understanding of the events of 9/11, as well as the outcomes of terrorism.

Many Stories: The Monologue Project

Grades 9-12

Students will explore the idea of perspective by reading literature, interviewing, and expanding the conversation to include the real stories of real people.

Personal Accounts of 9/11

Grades 9-12

Students will study the impact of the 9/11 attacks through research, interviews, and reflections of personal accounts to gain a better understanding of the event on the individual level.

Placing 9/11 In A Global Context

In order to understand the impact that September 11th had on the world and how the attacks have shaped our future, students are encouraged to view them in a global context. As demonstrated in this excerpt from the HBO documentary What Happened on September 11, teachers can present their students with this complex historical subject in a variety of ways.

Inspiring Service in the Classroom

Grade 2+

Students will explore the influence that the 9/11 attacks had on the effort toward service in the community and the world. Students will read the story behind Sadako’s Cranes, inspiring them to make strides to help out in their local community.

The Social Impact of 9/11

Grade 7

Students will learn about the events of the 9/11 attacks and how everyday life has changed since.

Terrorism in a Global Context

Grades 11-12

Students will explore the causes of 9/11, terrorism, and its outcomes on a global scale by evaluating historic content to generate a greater understanding of their own world view.

The Role of Intelligence in Hunting Osama bin Laden

Grade 12

Students will research the CIA’s activities in pursuing terrorists hiding in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 to understand how the agency influenced U.S. policy regarding Osama bin Laden.


Directed and produced by Emmy® Award winner Amy Schatz (HBO’s “Song of Parkland”, “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm,” and “An Apology to Elephants”), in collaboration with the 9/11 Tribute Museum, What Happened On September 11 debuts Wednesday, September 11 (6:00-6:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

Through archival photos and footage, the film includes a sidebar on the history and significance of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan, along with a short discussion of the global context and rise of Al-Qaeda to address kids’ question about the attackers’ motivations. “It’s a difficult lesson to teach,” admits Jennifer Suri, Assistant Principal of Social Studies at Stuyvesant High School, who is Muslim. She notes the importance of emphasizing that the motivations of the terrorists are not a part of Islam.

The film closes with a bright spot in the recovery: when a tree was found buried under the rubble. Visiting the “Survivor Tree,” seen in the film covered in flowers at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, the children take away a powerful lesson from the last living thing pulled from the site. To one student, the tree “goes to show that “through bad days, no matter how bad it gets, that shouldn’t make you scared to keep living your life.”

The 9/11 Tribute Museum has worked with teachers and students for over a decade to develop resources and a comprehension of September 11, 2001 through various learning disciplines. No state in the US has a curriculum to teach the history of 9/11 and how the world has changed. The Tribute Museum is honored to work with HBO to provide What Happened On September 11 as a documentary resource for teachers and students to incorporate the personal stories of the 9/11 community into the classroom.

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