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20 years later: How is 9/11 taught in schools?

In California, 9/11 is not required curriculum.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, schools across our country are talking to students this week about the events that took place that day.  

"I can tell you everything from that day as it all happened," said Tyler Hales.

Hales is a middle school history teacher at La Jolla Country Day School. He was a high school senior in Massachusetts during 9/11. He remembers the day vividly, and the impact it had on his family.

"My brother joined the Army because of 9/11," said Hales.

But, for his 8th-grade students, 9/11 doesn't carry the same meaning. In part, he says because they don't know much about it.

"They're not as connected to it as they were when I first started teaching 15 years ago here, and it's important they actually learn about the day.”

Hales is trying to change that.

Every year, leading up to 9/11, he spends several days teaching kids about the events of that day, specifically what they think they know, what they've learned, and the questions they still have.

Hales says it's important to create that dialogue, not only between himself and the class but among the students themselves.

He also has them take the discussion outside the classroom.

Their assignment this week is to interview someone in their life about their memories from 9/11.

"I'll get questions like my parents were in a different country or they were whatever and I don’t think they know anything. I say interview them. They have a story, and what they realize is they come in and share their stories in groups and take notes and they all realize everyone has a story that day," said Hales.

But, his lessons go beyond storytelling and discussions.

While visiting his class, he showed a documentary with images from that day. Some of his students had never seen the towers go down.

"One of the reasons that day is so vivid in so many adults’ lives is because we all watched the day unfold live on TV on the news," Hales told his students.

Hales’ approach may or may not look like what you'd see elsewhere. That's because there is no standard curriculum in California.

Only 14 states require 9/11 instruction: Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and New York.

How it's taught, or if it's taught at all is mostly up to individual districts and schools.

News 8 made several calls before finding a class not only willing to allow us in, but one where 9/11 is being discussed.

"One of the things I discovered is a lot of adults are so traumatized they don't want to talk about it," said Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Parker Rhodes is a young adult author who wrote a book about 9/11.

"Towers Falling" was one of two 9/11 books assigned as summer reading to middle school students in North Carolina.

Though it's taken 20 years, Parker Rhodes says educators and writers are finally beginning to grapple with 9/11, giving it a more permanent place in the education process.

"If you look at 9/11 literature, we're building a canon that you can start in elementary and all the way up," said Parker Rhodes. "Move to more, increasingly well-told stories about the legacy of 9/11 and the time that we spent in Afghanistan."

Hales is a part of that process, saying like any other history lesson, 9/11 is meaningful whether you were there or not.

"It's a really, I think, an important exercise for the students to realize like history is an everyday thing that everyone has stories to tell and they're all really meaningful."

WATCH RELATED: San Diego Fire Department firefighters reflect on being deployed to NYC to help on 9/11 (September 2021)

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