This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. On that morning in 2001, two large airplanes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane flew into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. A fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed that day. The planes were hijacked by 19 members of a militant Islamist group called al-Qaeda (pronounced al-KY-duh). They were angry about how the United States was treating countries in the Middle East.

Maybe you have learned about the attacks in school. Someone in your family may have experienced them in person. Perhaps you have questions about that day. Jennifer Lagasse has heard lots of such questions from school kids all over the United States. She is the assistant director of education programs at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, which was built where the twin towers used to stand.

The purpose of the memorial, she says, is “to accurately tell and record the events of that day. But it’s also to honor and remember the victims … as individuals that had lives and interests.”

Lagasse says that when kids come to the memorial “the floodgates open, because they perceive they’re allowed to ask every single question and they’re super-curious.” The kinds of questions she hears depends on the age of the kids asking them.

Younger kids want to know about firefighters and other first responders, and also about the dogs that helped look for survivors. Kids in middle school “want to know why the attacks happened, why the South Tower fell first when it was hit second, and they’re trying to make sense of what happened,” she says.

She sometimes has to take deep breaths to get through her answers. Mostly she tries to help kids understand that “while we can’t control that terrible things happen in the world, we can control the way we respond to them.”

Kids who visit are often on a school trip after they’ve learned about the attacks from their teachers. They don’t just get a chance to talk to Lagasse and her staff. They also can make paper roses and leave them as a tribute to the victims. Lagasse says this project was inspired by the museum’s birthday roses program. Museum staff leave a single white rose on the name of a victim on their birthday.

“Every day there’s at least one victim” who is honored, Lagasse says.

Another activity is making paper leaves. These get tied with ribbon to the railing around the museum’s Survivor Tree. This is a pear tree that was found alive in the wreckage of the towers. Any place that’s had its own natural or man-made disaster can request a seedling taken from the Survivor Tree. Lagasse says this is a symbol of healing and resilience.

Every year around September 11 many people start to leave their own tributes at the memorial: candy (“Probably that victim’s favorite,” Lagasse guesses), flags of many nations, letters, postcards and photographs. On the night itself the Tribute in Light sends two blue beams into the sky to remember the victims.

Learn more

Here are books Jennifer Lagasse of the National September 11 Memorial Museum recommends for understanding more about 9/11.

Immigrant, American, Survivor: A Little Boy Who Grew Up To Be All Three by William Jimeno and Charles Ricciardi (authors), Ricciardi (illustrator), 2021. (Grades 3 to 6)

The Man in the Red Bandanna by Honor Crowther Fagan (author) and John Crowther (illustrator), 2013. (Grades 2 to 3)

National Geographic Readers: September 11 by Libby Romero, 2021. (Grades 2 to 4)

Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin, 2017. (Grades 3 to 7)