Teaching 9/11 Through the Lessons of 9/12

09/09/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

Despite the fact that I was in the eighth grade on 9/11 and the after effects of that day -- the introduction of terror alert levels, tightened airport security measures, the arrival of "If you see something, say something" posters in New York subways, and freshly launched wars in the Middle East -- seemed omnipresent in my everyday life, it was 2006 before I was ever given the opportunity to actively discuss the events of 9/11 in a classroom setting with my peers.

It wasn't until I took an elective course entitled "Peace Studies" in the spring semester of my senior year of high school when I had my first classroom-based discussion on 9/11. At the time the idea of discussing an event my fellow students and I lived through as young adolescents in a classroom setting seemed strange. I had assumed that my teachers never brought up 9/11 in class because we had lived through it and they found it strange to try to "teach" us about something we had experienced.

However, as I reflect back on that day in Peace Studies class when I listened to my teacher try to give a lecture about 9/11 without upsetting anyone and heard my classmates struggle to articulate what they thought and felt about that day I have come to realize that maybe the real reason why we were never taught the history of 9/11 in school was because educators simply didn't know how to address the most tragic event in modern American history with students. And, if educators have struggled to teach the history 9/11 to students who lived through that day, how will they ever be able to teach future generations of schoolchildren -- children who have no personal context through which to understand 9/11 -- about the events of that day?

When I co-founded The 9/12 Generation Project with New York Says Thank You founder and chairman Jeff Parness it was our goal to find a way to empower educators to teach future students about 9/11 through the positive lessons of volunteerism, humanity, kindness and generosity that typified the actions of everyday Americans on 9/12 as they poured into New York City to help in the recovery and cleanup process at Ground Zero.

We also made it our goal to leverage the lessons of volunteerism and community service as well as the "Pay It Forward" mantra contained in the New York Says Thank You documentary film to activate 1.5 million middle and high school age youth in volunteer and service projects in their communities in the spirit of 9/12. It is our hope that through an educational version of the New York Says Thank You film and an accompanying lesson guide The 9/12 Generation Project will inspire American youth to become positive agents of change in the world. To quote my co-founder, "If we inspire a million and a half children we will never be able to measure the impact of what they do."

The 9/12 Generation Project officially launches on September 12, 2011, at the Claremont Preparatory School in Lower Manhattan, where many of the school's windows overlook the World Trade Center.

Tracey E. Vitchers is the co-founder and National Project Director for The 9/12 Generation Project, which is the youth education and volunteer outgrowth of the New York Says Thank You Foundation.