Not far from the Pentagon on 9/11, Louisville teacher helps kids learn about tragic day
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Before he became a teacher at Byck Elementary School in Louisville, Brandon Graves was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.
He remembers what it was like after a plane hit the Pentagon on that fateful day that is forever known as 9/11.
Flash forward 19 years, and Graves now helps his young pupils learn about 9/11 through his work with Global Game Changers, a Louisville-based nonprofit that teaches kids about community service through superhero themes.
The resources offered through 911lesson.org are free thanks to grant funding, making it easy for kids and parents to learn if they are stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graves, the Global Game Changers resident teacher at Byck Elementary, talks with students in each grade at the school about what happened during Sept. 11.
Specifically, Graves helped the group develop 911lesson.org, an interactive site that provides lessons for kids to learn about the September 2001 terrorist attacks and find inspiration to improve their communities.
“I’m a great primary source when I’m teaching my kids,” Graves said this week, ahead of Friday’s 19th anniversary of 9/11. “I tell them about being able to smell the smoke from the Pentagon and being able to see that destruction for days after.”
He is also mindful of teaching young learners about the traumatic event in an appropriate manner.
“It was definitely a day of tragedy and a scary, emotional day, so we definitely want to make sure that we keep things age-appropriate,” Graves said. “At the younger level (of) kindergarten and first grade, we talk about who were the heroes who helped that day and how do you find your own heroes when you are in need.”
Some of the “virtual heroes experience” options on 911lesson.org, for example, allow students to put themselves in the shoes of a New York Police Department officer clearing the streets so an ambulance can get to a hospital.
Kids can also see what is is like to be an EMT who treated the wounded on 9/11, and they can climb flights of stairs in honor of New York firefighters.
Graves said the site also teaches kids about “some things you can do to be a hero” in everyday life, such as creating and practicing a safety plan for any emergency.
For his older students, Graves said they “dig a little deeper” into lessons on inclusivity and oral history by hearing from adults who were impacted by 9/11.
It’s all part of an effort to help children who had not yet been born at the time of 9/11 to understand the events and the heroics of first responders, said Jan Helson, who co-founded Global Game Changers in 2013 with her daughter and niece.
Learning about a tragedy like 9/11 is certainly not easy, but Global Game Changers believes that focusing on the “superhero” first responders of the day and turning it into lessons on community service helps fulfill its mission, Helson said. “We work locally with at-risk children, a lot of underserved children and a lot of children who are exposed to trauma, so we work with them to help them overcome and help them build self-value,” Helson said. “(We are) using service learning as a vehicle to building social-emotional skills and those core competencies in children.”
The program also ties together 9/11 and the coronavirus crisis by challenging young learners to honor the “real-life heroes of 9/11” and help their communities today by learning to make “no-sew” face masks. At the end of the year, Graves said every student will complete a community service project that helps them put what they have learned from Global Game Changers into practice.
COVID-19 has forced Global Game Changers to scrap its original plans to bring lessons about 9/11 into various schools as part of a “traveling museum,” but Helson said the virtual experience has reached more kids.
The nonprofit has spread its “superhero” curriculum from Louisville to over 650 schools nationwide, Helson noted. And when discussing a traumatic event, keeping the focus on the first responders and community service relates to how Global Game Changers frames its curriculum. Helson noted her group’s “superpower equation” that all kids learn: “My talent plus my heart equals my superpower,” Helson said.