How a Fairfax Co. high school history teacher discusses 9/11 with students

When seniors at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, entered Doug Zywiol’s government class Friday, Zywiol began talking about where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.

Zywiol, the school’s social studies department chair, told his students he was 18 and a freshman in college at the time. He said he vividly remembers waking up in his dorm room and turning on the TV. He recalled being shocked at the events that transpired.

Days before the 21st anniversary of 9/11, Zywiol said his students remain curious about the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the attacks. They’re generally apprehensive at first, but typically ask questions about why the attack occurred and what Osama bin Laden’s goals were.

Sophomore students, who take a course covering world history after 1500, may discuss 9/11 from an international perspective, Zywiol said. As juniors, students take U.S. History, and seniors in government courses “fully understand the magnitude of what happened on that day,” he said.

The goal is “giving kids that perspective, to understand not only the tragedy of that day, and the loss of life, which is the most important part, but ultimately how the world completely changed as a result of those events,” Zywiol said. “That’s the one message that I always want to get across to kids.”

History teachers at Hayfield Secondary typically plan lessons in chronological order, but Zywiol said the department works around this time of year to connect themes from 9/11 to the topics they’re currently talking about.

After speaking about his experiences on 9/11, Zywiol said he clarified what happened to the plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.

“That’s a nice segue into talking about heroism and patriotism,” Zywiol said. “Things like sacrificing for our country and why we remember this day so vividly.”

He concludes by speaking about how the attacks affected the U.S. government, specifically its cabinet departments, and talking a bit about Afghanistan and Al-Qaida.

Zywiol also said he motivated his students to volunteer for one of many events planned for Sunday.

“A good teacher would try to get their students to apply those principles and those ideas in the real world,” Zywiol said. “What better way to do that than volunteering your time on the day of remembrance?”

During lunch Friday, Zywiol said each teacher in the department reflected on where they were on 9/11. One of the teachers was in his first year of teaching; two of the department’s newest teachers were 2 years old at the time.

“Everybody wants to talk about what they remember about that day, if they were here,” Zywiol said. “That’s obviously what social studies are going to talk about on that day.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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