SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 9, 2011

Sept. 11: The next generation

Schools focus on remembrance, resilience, hope at 10th anniversary

By Bethany Bray
Staff Writer

Most adults say they will never forget where they were the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, or the poignant images seen in newspapers and on television that day and in the days and weeks that followed.

Yet there are many children in the public schools who were not even born yet in 2001 and older students who were just toddlers or young children.

Local teachers and administrators are acutely aware they are marking the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 with children who have no firsthand knowledge or memory of the fateful day the U.S. came under terrorist attack. Each school on the North Shore is handling the anniversary differently, but one thing remains the same: Staffers are being very intentional in the way they handle lessons and questions about Sept. 11.

From having counselors visit classrooms to making thank-you cards for local police and firefighters, North Shore teachers and school administrators have planned ahead and talked through the activities and discussions taking place in each classroom.

"You want to focus on the positive," said Maryellen McGrath, principal of South Memorial Elementary School in Peabody. "... reassuring children they're going to be safe, but telling them the truth at the same time."

"If they happen to ask 'could this happen again?' we have to answer truthfully, that it could ... We want to make sure our children understand they are safe and there's been a lot of things that have been put into place for the security of our country."

School districts were just starting the year — in some towns, students had been in class for less than a week — as Sept. 11 was discussed yesterday.

Most schools observed a moment of silence. Others focused on community service or outreach to military families to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary.

In Beverly, Briscoe Middle School students hung writings and mementos on a wall of remembrance this week, and Beverly High School students covered the hillside in front of the school with "pinwheels for peace" yesterday after a morning flag ceremony.

"We want to create awareness of the day and be respectful of students' perspectives," said Briscoe Principal Matthew Poska. "Some have been impacted more deeply than others, and we have to be respectful of that."

Children in elementary schools, especially, have varying degrees of understanding and sensitivity about Sept. 11.

Sheila Conley, principal of Doyon Elementary School in Ipswich, said her school was not doing a schoolwide assembly for just that reason.

"It's a lower-key approach rather than heightening awareness," she said. "It's all a sensitivity issue, (and) recognizing that this tragic situation happened, many lives were lost and lives were touched forever."

Each classroom teacher is deciding how in-depth he or she will discuss the events of Sept. 11, 2001, with students, Conley said, and teachers will keep a close eye on body language and behavior cues that would indicate a young student was upset or had more questions.

"Everyone deals with loss in different ways, from the family pet to a human. Sometimes it's hard for them to grasp," Conley said. "We know (children) are touched by so many things they hear and read about. We need to be there in every way possible."

Deborah Trevarrow, school social worker at Winthrop Elementary in Ipswich, said she would be making time to visit classrooms as Sept. 11 is discussed.

"As educators, we want to pay tribute to the events (of Sept. 11) but also want to set a positive tone of optimism and resilience," Trevarrow said. "Our primary focus is for children to feel safe and secure at school, with anything."

For young students, many schools are choosing to focus on how public safety and military responders — as well as ordinary citizens — came together in the face of adversity on Sept. 11.

"This is an opportunity, for the older grades, to learn and understand that the attacks on Sept. 11 weren't representative of a culture or religion," Trevarrow said. "That it's important we respect all people."

McGrath, and many other educators, recommend that parents limit the amount of television and media coverage their children consume about Sept. 11. Images that can be graphic or moving to adults will be even more so for children.

"Children get information, and if they need or want more, they ask questions. That's why it's really important to listen to what children are asking and be very careful how you answer them," McGrath said. "... The Sept. 11 anniversary is really an opportunity for learning and to comfort our children."

Staff writer Bethany Bray can be reached at bbray@salemnews.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.