Standard Lesson

Responding to Tragedy: Then and Now

8 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions, plus additional time in or out of class for composition of student poems
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Though this lesson focuses on the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the activities can be used to help
students reflect on their responses to any tragedy from which they now have some distance. Students read and
discuss the personal responses of four different poets, focusing the relationships between language and
meaning. They then compose a poem of their own that includes a section addressing their initial responses to
the tragedy and their response to it in the present. Finally, they reflect on what they have learned by exposed to
the perspectives of their peers through reading their poems.

Featured Resources

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).


  • Reflecting on Tragedy
  • Then and Now Poetry Reflection


A collection of poems responding to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks written by "poets who believe in the value of poem-making and the power of word-art in the face of calamity and horror."

From the American Folklife Center, this collection of 14 drawings was submitted by third-grade students from Sequoyah Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee.


  1. Based on the age and backgrounds of your students, assess the amount of knowledge they have about the
    September 11, 2001 tragedy (or the tragedy you choose for the lesson’s focus). Carefully consider the
    possibility that some students may have extremely personal connections to the events, while others may
    know very little about them.
  2. Discuss with students appropriate ways for listening and responding to different perspectives on an
    event. The diverse views provided by sample poems in this lesson will allow for modeling and
    boundary-setting, but be ready to remind students that they need to be respectful of their classmates’
    perspectives, especially if they differ from theirs. Conversely, students need to be reminded that hate
    speech and other derogatory language is not appropriate in framing their own perspectives.

Student Objectives

Students will:

  • interpret selected poems reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001 for speaker, subject, tone, and language use (to varying degrees of sophistication depending on the age and maturity of the learners).
  • use poetic structure and language to compose a response that presents an immediate response to a tragedy, as well as a response changed by perspective.
  • reflect critically on the ways in which their responses are similar to and different from those of their peers.


Session One

  1. Begin the lesson by projecting and reading aloud Jesse Glass’ poem "down," which asks readers to consider where they were at the time they learned about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
  2. Ask students to write their own responses to Glass’ questions and to recall anything they remember about that day and the days immediately after.  Younger students may not have many specific memories, but they should be encouraged to write whatever they can. You may wish to project images from the Featured Drawings from the September 11, 2001 Documentary Project both to trigger memories and locate the tragedy appropriately in the childhood of your students.
  3. After students have had time to think and write, invite students to share their written responses in pairs or small groups.  Remind students to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of their peers, as everyone will have different feelings about this tragedy.
  4. Refocus students’ attention to "down" and ask students to share their responses to it. Challenge them with questions such as:
    • What feelings is it trying to invoke?
    • What can they infer about the speaker and his or her attitudes toward 9/11?
    • How is the poet using language to convey the poems meanings?
  5. Provide students with copies of three other poems written about the terrorist attacks, Penny Cagan’s “September Eleventh,” Karen Karpoick’s “In Central Park,” and Eliot Katz’s “When the Skyline Crumbles.”  Read each one aloud to help familiarize students with their content and language.
  6. Then in the same small groups, give students time to consider the same questions they used to respond to "down."  As students are annotating and discussing the texts, move from group to group to help guide conversations and answer questions that students may have.
  7. If time permits, bring the class back together to discuss the similarities and differences they noticed among the four poems. How did these four poets use language and the medium of poetry to shape a response to the tragedy of September 11th? How are their tones similar and different?

Session Two

  1. Begin this session with a brief review of the four poems from the previous session (or with the full class discussion of the texts if there wasn’t time before).
  2. Ask students to return to the reflective writing they did at the beginning of the previous session.  Tell them to look back over their memories and to consider how they might shape them into a poem that reflects their first responses to 9/11.
  3. Explain that they will be writing a poem with two sections—a “Then” section that attempts to capture the response they had at the time, and a “Now” section that explains what they think and feel about 9/11 with ten years of perspective, maturity, and change in the world.  If you feel students would benefit, distribute the Reflecting on Tragedy graphic organizer that allows students to consider their responses then and now, as well as what has changed (both in them and in the world) between the time of the tragedy and the present.
  4. Remind students to try to suggest a clear attitude toward or perspective on the tragedy in both sections of the poem.  Challenge them to use language, literary terms, images, and other poetic devices to help convey those attitudes.
  5. Give students time to begin drafting their poems, encouraging students to use the poems from the previous session, their reflective writing, and their peers as resources.  Although these poems are thematically unrelated, students may get ideas for structure from Babette Deutsch’s “Then and Now” or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Then and Now.”

Session Three

  1. After students have completed a draft of their poem that they are comfortable sharing, post each student’s poem on the wall or have students pass their poems around the room to allow them to read each other’s work.  You may also choose to share the poems digitally, projected for the students to see.
  2. As students are reading, have them take note of the different perspectives they see among their classmates and how individual responses both then and now are reflected through the meanings the poems convey and the language the authors used to convey that language.
  3. Facilitate a full class discussion in which students are encouraged to consider how both the personal/private responses and the political/public responses to September 11th have changed with time.


Student Assessment / Reflections