It’s been fifteen years since the most tragic terrorist attack on American soil, and there’s now a whole generation of students who weren’t even alive on 9/11. How does one go about teaching that day to children who don’t know what it felt like?
Cassandra Knutson, American Sign Language instructor at ACU and in the Abilene Independent School District, taught the history of 9/11 to deaf middle school students through the use of an ABC stoy – a type of exercise that uses each letter in the sign language alphabet to tell a story. But first, she actually had to teach them about the attack.
“I started with the basics,” Knutson said. “We studied the geography involved – Middle East, NYC, D.C. – we looked at pictures of the attacked buildings and talked about the various jobs at each. I set up the classroom to look like an airplane, because none of my students had ever flown. We talked about the Islamic culture, and how not everyone that looks like the terrorists has the same mal-intent. I built up their background knowledge, so I could explain the events of 9/11 more effectively.”
The students first acted as if it was just a scary movie or video game until they watched live footage of 9/11 and saw the stories of people impacted by the attack, which helped them understand the devastation, Knutson said.
“I knew signing a representation of the events of 9/11 would help make it more real for them,” Knutson said. “I knew that practicing the ABC story, much like a hearing student would memorize a poem to recite, would foster their memorization of the events. Secondly, I wanted to bring the tradition of storytelling by the Deaf community to my students. I am always looking for ways to show my students that being Deaf is not a disability, but something to have pride in.”
Knutson said the finished ABC story was a collaboration between her and the students. It was their first experience with that type of storytelling, so Knutson guided them through the process, but the students were creative and came up with great ideas, she said.
The video of the ABC story performance was picked up by USA Today late last week, just before the 15th anniversary of the attack, and is currently featured on their website. Knutson said it’s amazing that such a big platform saw the story, and she loves that her students can see the result of their hard work.
Tessa Cave, senior sociology major from Keller, Texas, is a student in Knutson’s ASL class at ACU and said Knutson shared the video with her class after USA Today posted it on their website.
“[Knutson] spent a lot of time ensuring that her students really understood the event and was able to incorporate a unique part of sign language,” Cave said. “I loved how it got to USA Today, as well. I think it’s really important that the US gets to see the Deaf culture.”