Somerset County Flight 93 site tests ways to connect with children

By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Young children spread out across the vast Flight 93 National Memorial plaza Thursday morning.

Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Falk Laboratory School in Oakland did a field test of the National Park Service's educational booklet for youth visiting the memorial. Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette

Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Falk Laboratory School in Oakland did a field test of the National Park Service’s educational booklet for youth visiting the memorial. Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette

Some lay on the black concrete sidewalk, taking notes and reading aloud to each other. Others made rubbings with their pencils of coins left as tributes along the wall that traces the plane’s flight path. Nearly all walked past the 40 individual marble slabs carved with the passengers’ and crew members’ names, touching the cool surface, noting some of the individual stories of their lives.

When adults visit the Flight 93 National Memorial at Stonycreek, Somerset County, they think back to where they were that morning of September 11, 2001, what they were doing, how they felt.

But children — many who weren’t even born yet — don’t have that same connection, no personal sense of what was lost, what it meant.

A joint project by the National Park Service and the school of education at the University of Pittsburgh is working to develop a Junior Ranger Handbook for children ages 6 to 12 to understand what happened at the 2,200-acre memorial site.

About 70 fifth- and sixth-grade students at Pitt’s Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School visited the site Thursday to try out the booklets and provide feedback.

It was the first visit for many to the memorial, which is surrounded by fields of reclaimed strip mines, trees still waiting to bloom and a vast sense of peace and quiet.

“It makes me feel sad so many people had to die because one group didn’t like our country,” said Hayden Brook, 12, of Forest Hills.

“Normally, we’re telling the story to people who lived it,” said Jeff Reinbold, the memorial superintendent. “What happens is the parents come to one of our rangers and say, ‘You tell them.’

“It became apparent to us no one is talking to the youngest kids.”

So, about two years ago, the National Park Service partnered with Mary Margaret Kerr, a professor of psychology in education at Pitt, to lead the project.

Before the students set out to explore the memorial, Dr. Kerr told the children she wanted them to be honest about what they liked and didn’t in the booklet. “You’re not going to hurt our feelings if you say, ‘Bleh, these activities are boring.'”

Almost immediately, she heard from the students.

Elena Hochheiser, an 11-year-old from Squirrel Hill, stopped Dr. Kerr and said, “I don’t like this activity at all.” She then told Dr. Kerr she’d like one that asks specific questions about what the children see at the site.

Emma Waldron, 10, who lives in Schenley Farms, said she liked the booklet. She’d never been to the memorial before but she knew the story about the plane.

“I know the passengers were very brave,” she said. “I kinda know why. They knew they were going to die anyway. They weren’t going to be selfish.”

In developing the booklets, Dr. Kerr and her students and colleagues went through the memorial’s archives, reviewing the thousands of tributes left at the temporary memorial during its first several years.

“We used those to study how children make meaning of this place,” she said.

The booklet is broken down into three themes and includes three levels of activities for children as young as 6, up to 12. The themes are “a place of reflection, a place of honor and a call to action.”

One of the things that makes the memorial a difficult place for children is that it’s an abstract space, Dr. Kerr said.

“There’s not a crater. There’s not a plane — the kind of things kids would look for,” Mr. Reinbold said. “Part of it is telling them the story and helping them understand this place.”

There is so much symbolism built into the memorial — from the number of hemlock groves, to the sharp lines throughout the wall representing the broken branches of the trees that absorbed the impact — that it can be difficult to pick up on it all.

At the marble wall of names, a large hemlock gate blocks the opening out into the debris field.

George Bigler, 11, of Regent Square, asked Mr. Reinbold about it.

“He said the hard wood represents the toughness of the people of Flight 93,” George said.

It’s also important, Dr. Kerr said, to strike a delicate balance between protecting the children from trauma and teaching them history.

The booklet focuses less on the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 and more on the heroic actions of those people on board. Among the activities is one explaining how in about 30 minutes, the passengers and crew were able to make a decision to attempt to wrest control of the plane to prevent it from striking a building like three other planes did that morning.

Children working on the booklet are then asked about what they could do in 30 minutes to help others.

The students were quick to pick up on the bravery of those on the plane, and praise them.

“These people must have been very brave to overpower the hijackers,” Hayden said.

“It symbolizes how heroic those regular old people could be on a plane — that they recognized something was happening, and they used their lives to protect this country by crashing the plane,” said Gabriel Batista, 12, of Regent Square.

Falk School director Wendell McConnaha said it was important to lay the groundwork about the memorial with the students ahead of time.

Sixth-grade language arts teacher Greg Wittig did that, and reminded the students when they arrived Thursday morning where they were.

“We need to remember why we’re here,” he told them. “There are different spaces and places in the world that require something different of us. If we don’t meet that, we’re losing something of ourselves.”

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