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'Towers Falling': An Author Explores Challenges In Teaching 9/11

Author and teacher Jewell Parker Rhodes‘ new book “Towers Falling” was inspired by teachers she met in Brooklyn who saw the events of 9/11 from their classrooms, and now 16 years later, are meeting kids who don’t know anything about that day, and they themselves don’t know how to teach it.

Jewell takes a fictional group of kids through class lessons. She talks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about her hope that it will be used in classrooms everywhere.

Interview Highlights: Jewell Parker Rhodes

You were inspired by real teachers who watched the attacks from their classrooms in Brooklyn?

Absolutely. Brooklyn New School, PS146. The whole wall of their building is glass windows. And they were able to see everything that had happened, and when I went to visit the school, they spoke of how even today the teachers were still traumatized by the event and still unable to talk about it with their students, and so in some ways I wanted to create a book where teachers and families can begin having conversations to inform our kids so our kids can be better citizens.

On the school’s reaction when younger children would ask about the Twin Towers:

Absolutely. When they do their study of New York, the students see the old pictures of the New York skyline, and the young ones will ask ‘what happened? Where are those buildings?’ And the school pretty much felt that they didn’t want to go there. There was still so much trauma.

In some ways this book gives them a tool to talk about 9/11.


But I must say it’s really based on the whole educational principle of PS 146, an integrated curriculum and also a curriculum that involves problem solving, and thinking critically, and reading and using your mind.

On an integrated approach to learning about 9/11:

Education should bring in all disciplines because in order to understand why this huge Twin Towers collapse, why would they fall, then you also need to understand what a horrific act it was in the context of how they were built, then it becomes even more terrifying, oh my gosh, the trauma of it. So understanding the science behind the building makes you understand how unexpected, horrific it was for those buildings to fall. Just like understanding music and how music in our culture, Star Spangled Banner, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has a part in our story, or the history of how many times America has been attacked on its soil.


On how the book helps readers understand the meaning of community, in context of 9/11:

One of the things in this day and age of technology, a child who wasn’t born for 9/11 can pull up on their cell phone or on their computer visions of the towers burning and the towers falling. And one of the things that they see is this horrible, horrible thing but what they don’t see is the American response, and that’s what I wanted to give them the beautifulness of how all of us felt connected as family, friends, the concentric circles, how all of us make home, and how our bravery, our resilience and our love for one another helped us survive that trauma.

On how access to technology does affect what people know about the past, speaking in terms of the characters in Dana Soehn’s book:

Absolutely. And it’s her friend Ben who shows her these things on technology. But Deja to me was very important because when the terrorists bomb the Twin Towers, they were thinking “We’ll hit America in its capitalistic soul.” And that’s not what America is all about.

We’re about principles and values of justice, democracy and you know freedom. And by having a homeless girl, it made me possible to demonstrate regardless of class, we are all Americans. Regardless of race, we are all Americans. Regardless of whether we’re immigrants or we’re born in America, we are all Americans. And the neat thing is that Deja discovers that her homelessness is because her dad worked in the towers, that her dad is now suffering from anxiety and respiratory distress. So she doesn’t know that that history has impacted her personally, and she’s able to help heal her dad, by recognizing that he had a special place. He is a hero because he helped saved one woman who had her connections to family, friends and community.

If you go all the way back to the founding of our nation, there was love for equal justice, democracy, love for our community. We are the revolutionaries. So in 8 years, a fifth grader will be able to marry, be able to join the service. A fifth grader will be able to go to college. A fifth grader will be able to vote. And I want them to be reminded of our founding principles because that’s what keeps us strong, and that’s what kept us united as a nation post 9/11.

On if some content might be too graphic for children to read:

I don’t think so. I think we live in a different age. And children are incredibly smart. If we can teach them about slavery, if we can teach the Holocaust, if we can teach about terrorism, we can certainly teach more specifically about the 9/11 incident. I think though, one of the things I, as an artist and educator do in the book, I take these brief moments of yes, of the horrible, but the novel has a whole transforms and shows how through art, including the visit to the 9/11 memorial, we can make peace. Some realities need to be presented in a measured way. In a school context, in a family context, because again in 8 years, these are the children that will rule our world.


Jewell Parker Rhodes, author and novelist. She tweets @jewell_p_rhodes.

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(Towers Falling cover/Courtesy
(Towers Falling cover/Courtesy
(Towers Falling/Amazon)
(Towers Falling/Amazon)