Classroom Solutions > Alycia Zimmerman > Celebrating Community Heroes: September 11th in the Elementary Classroom

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Celebrating Community Heroes: September 11th in the Elementary Classroom

FDNY Let me be honest with you: Teaching my third graders about September 11th makes me a little uncomfortable. My students weren’t even born in 2001, and this historic tragedy just doesn’t seem all that relevant to their lives. On the other hand, September 11th has become a permanent part of our collective consciousness. As New York City gears up for the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, my students are inevitably curious about it. It wouldn’t be fair to my students if I didn’t help them understand 9/11 in a way that honors their intellectual curiosity, yet is appropriate for their age as well. Thank goodness for the picture book Fireboat by Maira Kalman! Here’s how I use this amazing book to discuss the facts about 9/11 and then shift into a lesson about heroes.


My Five-Step Plan for Teaching About 9/11

Step 1: Give Families a Heads-Up 

A few days before I plan to teach about September 11th, I send home a letter to my students’ families, explaining that the students will be learning about the event in school. I ask the parents if they have any particular concerns about this lesson, or if there is anything I should be aware of before beginning the lesson. Here is the letter I will be sending home this year:

Family Letter

 Download Family 9_11 Letter

Step 2: Pre-Assess for Prior Knowledge

Although I tend to shy away from written pre-assessments, I feel it is appropriate here. I need to know how much background knowledge my students have about 9/11; however, I don’t really want a particularly knowledgeable student to “share too much” with other students, beyond what they are ready to handle. Here is the pre-assessment organizer I use:


Download 9_11 Pre-assessment

Step 3: Read Aloud: The Fireboat, The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey
Fireboat Book
As I mentioned, I love this book! Kalman writes the “biography” of the John J. Harvey, a fireboat that was built in 1931 to fight fires on the NYC piers. By 1995, the city had changed: “The Twin Towers were now the tallest buildings in New York City,” and fireboats had outlived their purpose. A group of friends decide to rescue the John J. Harvey from a junkyard fate. It was used to host neighborhood parties until it was called upon to help fight the blazing fires of September 11th.

I like how Maira Kalman uses illustrations to convey an appropriate mood and just enough information about the events of that day. There’s an image of two planes flying towards the Twin Towers, and another illustration of the Towers exploding. The rest of the book is about the mobilization of the fireboat and the other heroes of 9/11.

Kalman doesn’t discuss the reasons behind 9/11, which I appreciate. Based on my students’ questions and their pre-assessments, I will lead a discussion after we read the book to clarify what they know about the event and to address questions that arise during the reading of the book. I make sure to point out that when terrible things happen in the world, there are always helpers rushing forward to give aid. I then connect this to our school’s aid initiatives, so my students can feel empowered as heroes. This year, I’ll remind the students about how our school worked together to raise money for the Japanese people after the tsunami last year.

Step 4: Thanking a Local Hero
Thank You Card 2
There are many ways to teach about heroes (just Google it and you’ll be swamped), but I tend to keep it pretty simple. We create two charts together -– one listing the heroes in our community, and one listing the character traits of a hero. This does double duty as vocabulary and character development.

Then I have my students write thank-you cards to the firefighters at our local fire station. I use this as an opportunity to review the parts of a letter, and my students enjoy this authentic purpose for writing. Of course you can have your students write cards to any local hero, from your school crossing guard to local hospital workers.

Step 5: Let’s Be Heroes! Helping Others in Need

During an address on August 27, President Obama urged Americans to commemorate September 11th with acts of kindness and volunteerism. Each year, my students plan a service project as an offshoot of our 9/11 activities. This year, several of my students are very concerned about the famine in East Africa, so we are going to raise money to donate to an organization working to provide food for children. We are going to use the harvest from our school garden to host a small “farm market” for my students’ families, with proceeds going to our chosen cause. Last year my students organized a toiletry drive, collecting 20 bags of hotel toiletries to donate to a local food pantry. Find a cause that interests your students and hand them the reins.

More Resources About the John J. Harvey Fireboat


  • New York City teachers, you can take your class to visit the John J. Harvey at Pier 66 on the North (Hudson) River at 27th Street! Visit the Fireboat website for more information. (The John J. Harvey is only a few blocks from my school, so it’s our first walking trip of the year for my class.)
  • You may want to share this video clip with your students so that they can envision the John J. Harvey in action.

FireBoat (Photo by bridgeandtunnelclub)

More Resources for Teaching About September 11


  • For more teaching ideas, visit "Understanding 9/11" where you will find lesson plans, articles, booklists, and videos about the event.

How are you planning on teaching about September 11th in your classroom? Please share your ideas, questions, and comments!


  • #1 Karen

    Tuesday, September 06, 2011 at 08:46 PM

    @ Susan
    I also teach fourth grade. One of the first activities we do as a class is on character traits. I have a dove template that I copy for each student and write their name in the middle. As a class we brainstorm character traits that we like in our friends. Then we sit in a circle and pass our doves to the left. I give them about a minute to write something positive about that person on his/her dove. Then we keep rotating. By the time the students get their dove back it's filled with 24 different positive traits. I hang that on my board with "Meet our Class." The kids love this activity and are flattered by the compliments on their doves. I hope this helps you.

    Good Luck!

  • #2 Karen

    Tuesday, September 06, 2011 at 08:40 PM

    I have been using Fireboat for years. I love the book. For 9/11 I always focus on the heroism and sense of community that followed. I had the students write about a hero in their lives. This year I am going to have them write letters to community workers in the neighborhood. Thanks for such a simple, yet profound follow up activity.

    I am enjoying reading your posts and look forward to future ones!

    Thank you!

  • #3 Alycia Zimmerman

    Saturday, September 03, 2011 at 10:30 PM

    Michelle, thank you for the comment! I'm so glad that this lesson plan will work for you. Best of luck - Alycia

  • #4 Alycia Zimmerman

    Saturday, September 03, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    Hi Susan, empty bulletin boards are a challenge at the beginning of the year - but I'd rather put up quality work rather than something I rush the kids through. This summer, my students wrote to each other as "pen pals," and they are going to bring in their letters which I'll hang up as our first bulletin board. (Yes, that is sort of a short cut.) Something I've done in the past is have the students write and publish a piece of poetry during the first week of school. Judith Viorst's poem, "If I Were In Charge of the World" is an amazing mentor poem. I have my students write their own "If I were in charge ..." poems, and their poetry is usually quite amusing, as well as telling about their personalities. I hope this helps! All the best - Alycia

  • #5 michelle ross

    Saturday, September 03, 2011 at 06:49 AM

    Thank you-this will do perfectly for my class.

  • #6 Susan Sortino

    Thursday, September 01, 2011 at 07:45 PM

    I am looking for a great yet simple welcome bulletin board activity for the students to do the firs week of school? 4 th graders. Thanks

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Alycia Zimmerman
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