On the Day After 9-11 Graduate Students who were First Responders Attend their Family Literacy Class

By Denny Taylor

I taught a family literacy course the semester of 9-11 and the class met in the late afternoon the day after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers fell. When students arrived we discussed cancelling class, but students said they wanted to stay. There was agreement that we could not just go on as if nothing had happened, and so these young teachers, many of whom were first responders, decided that they would talk about what happened in their schools in the aftermath of the disaster. They also decided that if there was time and they felt they could go on, they would talk about their family literacy projects. 

In the class there were graduate students who were teachers in schools where the Twin Towers were visible from their classroom windows, and the children in their classes saw the plane hit the first Tower and they watched as the second Tower fell. Graduate students spoke of children in their classes whose mothers and fathers worked at the World Trade Center and of children whose mother or father was missing. None of the graduate students had lost a close family member, but everyone had children in their classes or knew of children in their schools who had family members who were missing and later were known to have died. Others spoke of the firefighters in their families who had not come home since the Towers fell. Some students just shook their heads and did not speak as they went around the room and shared their experiences. Later we talked of the importance of recognizing and respecting that some children in their classes may be unable or choose not to speak.

On that night each student had brought to class three family literacy “treasures” that had deep meaning for their families. Each semester students brought poems, prayers, letters from grandparents, and “I love you” notes, ticket stubs to a baseball game or Broadway musical, and newspaper cuttings. The list is endless, and with every “treasure” there comes a family story that students tell.  And so in class the day after 9-11, in a moment that was beyond comprehension, when everyone cried, there was also laugher as well as tears. That semester the treasures seemed more poignant, more heartfelt, more joyful, and more funny. Students were empathic. They listened to each other tell their family stories as if these were the most important stories that they had ever heard.

It was that night that a student brought in a Russian matryoshka doll, with dolls nested inside each other. The student said she had decided to bring the doll to class as one of her treasures together with the letters her grandmother had written to her when she had vacationed in Russia the year before she died. She said she had never got to the last doll before that night as she shared the dolls with the students sitting next to her, and that when she did she found a tiny piece of paper folded up in the tiniest doll. The students watched as she took each doll from inside another until she reached a doll so small it didn’t seem possible that there could be a piece of paper inside it. But there was. Carefully the student unfolded it. “I didn’t know it was there,” she said, again. She showed the class that in the tiniest of writing her grandmother had written her name and “I love you”. It was magical. In a room filled with sorrow it was as if hope had found a way into our hearts and minds.

Memorial Pool of the National September 11 Memorial in New York, N.Y.

At the end of every class students wrote to me in their “blue notebooks” which were actually exam booklets, but l never used them for that. Instead every week they wrote to me and over the period of a week I would write back to them. On September 12, 2001, one student wrote:

I still can’t believe that what happened is a reality. I am happy that we had some time in class today to discuss our feelings. For me the hardest part of today was trying to explain what happened to first graders without scaring them. I feel sharing our family treasures today was a great idea. So many people brought in memories and treasures that had happy emotions behind them, which we all needed. Others brought in things that made them break down and cry, but many of us needed to cry as well. We needed to let out emotions that we had to keep inside while teaching today. It is going to take a while for things to get back to normal, if they ever do.

Another wrote:

After a sad and tragic day yesterday, today, and forever in my memory, I am glad we had the chance to hear other people’s stories, fears, and insights. I do not feel alone and I know that other teachers are going through the same events. I have two children in my first grade class have lost someone dear to them and my heart goes out to them. I am not even sure when I will see these two children again and it is a shock to me. In the next few days I hope to learn how to deal with this.

This class tonight made “FAMILY” the most important thing in the world. My family has always meant everything to me and every day I value life more and more. I always like to hear stories from people because it lets you know that we are the same, and feel and think about family in similar ways, even though our experiences are different. I truly learned from everyone here tonight. Thank you.

When students arrived the following week they were unanimous that our last class had made it possible for them to “be there” for the children in their classes and to have the strength to guide them through the difficult days that followed. For the rest of the semester, we began each class with time for students to talk at the beginning of class not only about what was happening in their schools in the aftermath of the tragedy, but also about what was happening in their own lives.

One student was married to a firefighter who was in the city at the site searching for survivors and then for bodies. Several students had family members who were also there. One student’s husband was in the police force and he had been deployed to the city and was part of the terrorist investigation. The students spoke of being on their own, worrying about their partners, not knowing if they were okay or when they would come home, taking care of their children on their own, taking care of the children in their classes, some with children who had lost a parent or family member, and keeping up with their graduate classes.

Nearly every week after 9-11 stories were told of the heroism of teachers and administrators who had worked in schools in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, who had led their children to safety and stayed with them through the night as parents tried to reach them. Other stories too were woven into the conversation, someone who knew someone who miraculously had decided to work at home that day, or had gone in late, or whose life had been saved by early morning dental appointment, or an extra few moments in a diner drinking coffee.

There was no time limit on these conversations, but they did not last long. Soon the class would get to work on the literacy projects and activities that were on the agenda for the week, or meet in their book study groups to prepare class presentations. Students created family literacy museums or family literacy books, they wrote narrative accounts of their literacy interviews with family elders and created large and colorful literacy maps, posters and books of their literacy walks in the communities in which they lived. Adding to this wealth of literacy artifacts they had created they brought into class all the K-12 student projects in which the children in their classes had participated.

Together they created real world connections, integrating personal and shared experiences, as in very meaningful ways they participated in the remaking of their world. Their tasks were sensory and non-sensory, combining seeing and knowing in the moment with their re-visioning of the future literacy lives of their students. Implicitly they rejected the artificial separation of the analytic by combining the literacy research that they were reading and analyzing with their experiences of engaging with others in demonstrating the role that literacy plays in their families, communities, and schools. 

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, pause at the North Memorial Pool of the National September 11 Memorial in New York, N.Y.

In subsequent semesters and through the years since 9-11, it has become increasing difficult to continue the work that graduate students do in the course. State policies and mandates in response to Federal laws and Federal funding requirements have had a cascading effect in K-12 schools that has severely impinged upon the scholarship of graduate students in the course. In the past students have presented at national conferences and published articles on the engagement of the K-12 students in the literacy projects and activities in family, community and schools.

In the Spring semester just after 9-11 when the work we did was still possible, one of the students in the course encouraged all the third grade teachers in her school to join her on a “literacy walk” into the small town where they lived with all of the third grade students, so that they could participate in a research project to observe and study the literacy practices of the people in the town where they lived. The children documented the types and uses of reading and writing that they observed in the post office and the bank. They interviewed members of the police force and firefighters. They spent time in local stores talking with shop owners and customers, and they analyzed their data. At the end of the semester-long community literacy research project the children presented their findings to the whole school, and parents and members of the community were invited to attend.

The event was written up in the local newspapers so that parents and members of the community could appreciate the work the students had done, while at the same time it afforded them with an opportunity to think more deeply about the role of literacy in their own lives. The student presented her students’ school based community literacy project at an International Scholars Forum, and when her research was appeared in School Talk which is published by the National Council of English Teachers, it had a remarkable effect on other students taking the course who expanded their own horizons of the possibilities of the literacy projects they were encouraged to create.

Such learning opportunities are long gone. Now, if you can’t measure it you can’t teach it, but undaunted when I was told my teaching was “outdated”, I continued to speak with students about teaching in the cracks for a more just and caring world. At first the negative shifts taking place were almost imperceptible. First, graduate students were denied consent to engage with the children in their classes in literacy research projects in their neighborhoods and communities, and so they took “literacy walks” in their schools, documenting the literacy practices and types and uses of reading and writing they observed in the hallways, classrooms, and offices. Then it became more difficult for them to gain permission to engage with their students in the family literacy treasures and elder literacy interviews, because these student literacy research projects took time away from test preparation to fulfill Federal and State assessment mandates. Each semester the restrictions intensified until we reached the point where only one or two students in my graduate classes were allowed to work with students in their k-12 schools, and mostly with only one or two children during the lunch break, or before or after school.

What concerns me the most is that in the last two or three semesters that I taught the family literacy course, all of the graduate students in the class were deeply affected by the curricular restrictions that I was now encouraging them to try to overcome. Graduate students in the class had no personal learning experiences of participating in such literacy research projects during their own K-12 education. All they remembered was teacher-directed, linear prescriptive commercial literacy programs and the repetitive drilling on atomistic reading skills. Their sensory and non-sensory ways of knowing were severed when they were young children.

In my final years of teaching, when the graduate students had no memories of active engagement in project based inquiry studies, they quite literally did not know what they did not know. It was not that they had forgotten. In their K-12 school experiences there were no such projects for them to remember. Added to the reductionist limitations that had been placed on them during their K-12 school experiences, they were also handicapped in their graduate university classes and programs because of the restrictive monitoring systems established in universities in response to Federal and State requirements.

When students first entered the classroom at the beginning of last few those semesters that I taught they often spoke about being compulsive obsessive, and sometimes their apprehension and anxiety filled the classroom with an incredible heaviness of being – as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders. For most, sometimes for all students, it was the first time they had experienced participatory, project-based transdisciplinary teaching. Students expressed surprise at the ways in which I taught, and I was once asked if I had dropped from the sky – an extraterrestrial I suppose because they had never met a progressive educator before! But by the end of every semester they were elated when their projects were presented – always research based, but practical in orientation.

At the last class we always had a family literacy celebration, and students put up displays of their research and prepared to make their presentations. They brought members of their families and sometimes their k-12 students, and in the discussions they talked about teaching in similar ways so that their students would have opportunities to develop the empathetic problem-solving dispositions they would need in the future when their imaginative and creative collaboration might become essential for their survival in a world in which they will become vulnerable to – hard for us to imagine – life threatening risks.

About Denny Taylor

In 1983, Taylor published Family Literacy, which is regarded a classic in the field; Growing Up Literate received the MLA Shaughnessy award in 1988; and Toxic Literacies, published in 1996, was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2004, Taylor was inducted into the IRA’s Reading Hall of Fame.

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