Written by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Published by Little, Brown and Company 2016
“Six weeks at a new school has changed everything. School didn’t teach me everything about 9/11. Still, I understand a lot more. I understand some of the enormous hurt to families, my family, and country” (p. 218). Like so many children across the country, Brooklyn-born and raised Dèja Barnes never heard about the events of September 11, 2001 until she starts fifth grade at the multicultural Brooklyn Cooperative Elementary. Her mom juggles jobs while her father struggles with mental and physical health conditions that Dèja just doesn’t understand. Although her family now lives in a homeless shelter, the new neighborhood offers a school filled with strong teachers and diverse students. As her fifth grade class begins to study the events of September 11th, Dèja is frustrated by all the things that she does not know. As she learns more about that day, New York City, and the world around her, Dèja begins to piece together her father’s struggles. Jewell Parker Rhodes has crafted a gorgeous, multi-layered novel about family, friendship, and loss that ruminates on immigration, the American identity, and the relevance of history. With a diverse cast of characters, she brings contemporary New York City to life, reveals the struggles of millions of Americans who comprise the working urban poor, and pays homage to the first responders and survivors who still battle deteriorating health and PTSD. Dèja recognizes that “America is my history. My story. Not just ‘Homeless Dèja.’ I don’t know how yet — but the towers falling is my history, too” (p. 128). Ideal for read aloud, whole class reads, and book groups, as well as an integrated exploration in social studies, Towers Falling provides children in the middle grades with a beautiful and painful glimpse of fifteen years ago from the vantage point of today.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades 4 and Up
Looking Out Your Window. From the start of the book, Miss Garcia has the students examining the Manhattan skyline from their classroom. We find out that on September 11, 2001, the entire fictional Brooklyn Collective school community saw the events unfold. Few events can be so catastrophic to watch. But what they see out the windows every day matters, too. It is through continuity that we witness change. The same is true for your school, wherever it is located. What can your students see outside of your classroom? Keep a class journal throughout the school year. Perhaps window watching can be an official classroom job for the school year; perhaps you include it as part of your writer’s workshop. Over the course of the year, share what students observe. What stays the same? What is different? Why does it matter?
Home and Homeless. In the novel, Miss Garcia tells the class that “Home is our starting point for connecting to the past” (p. 39). Home means different things to different characters. Dèja is honest about living in a shelter, though she carries her anger inside of her; Ben desperately misses the Arizona ranch where he used to live, but equally so his father who seems to have forgotten him. For Sabeen, home is a place of refuge on the anniversary of September 11th. Have students explore concepts of home. What is home? Is where they live home? Is home somewhere else? Is home something they are still searching for? In what ways do their physical homes shape their lives? In what ways is it the people within their homes that do so? What does it mean to be without a home? What does it mean to be without loved ones that once made home. Students can write about their homes and make physical representations of them, as the students do in the book, and then explore the similarities and differences between them. For a different exploration of home and homeless, you can pair Towers Falling with Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw.
Revision. Throughout the novel, Dèja is revising her essay about home. Have students compare and contrast the various versions of her essay. What changes in terms of content? Style? Organization? How does her essay reflect deeper understanding about both the topic and the process of writing? What writing lessons can they tease out of her revisions? Have students apply those lessons to a piece of writing that they are working on.
Read Aloud. The beautiful language and voices within Towers Falling deserve to be heard out loud. Reading aloud is also a powerful way to support students who, like Deja, were not born in 2001 and may not know about the events of September 11th. Throughout your reading, you can have students tracking their own “social units” as Miss Garcia’s class does, and the ways in which they are overlapping and interconnected. You may want to conclude the read aloud with a reading of Billy Collins’ poem, “The Names,” in homage to the victims and their survivors.
History Alive? As the 2016-2017 school year starts at Brooklyn Cooperative, the focus is on integrated curriculum and the fact that “[h]istory is alive” (p. 12). But Dèja resists. “History doesn’t put bread on the table. Or buy clothes. All kinds of stuff happened in the past. Life goes on just fine. No, not so fine. But knowing about the past isn’t going to make things better. At least not for me” (pp. 73-74). Before reading the novel, read this quote aloud to your students. Do they agree or disagree with Deja? Ask them to do some journal writing about this idea, and have them return to this idea of history being alive throughout their reading of the novel. As Dèja and her friends connect the events of September 11th with the reality of their lives in 2016, provide your students with the opportunity to study either September 11th and its aftermath or events of the 20th century that continue to have an impact on our lives.
Author/Event Study. Have your students conduct a Jewell Parker Rhodes author study. Doing so necessitates concurrently studying painful aspects of American history, such as the B.P. Horizon Oil Spill (Bajou Magic), Hurricane Katrina (Ninth Ward), and September 11th, and the interconnection of African-American history, slavery, and the sugar trade (Sugar). For 6th-8th graders working with her books, have them also read the speech Rhodes gave at 2015 Children’s Literature Institute of the American Booksellers Association about diversity in children’s literature. Have students working within and across book groups, to explore similarities and differences in theme, characterization, and mood. Parallel to their examination of the novels, have students conduct research on the various events depicted within the books. What connections do they unearth between the various events and the ways in which communities respond? How do the book address power and powerlessness? What reverberates across time?
Duet Reading: September 11th, Characterization, Theme. Have some students in your class read Towers Falling and others read Somewhere Among by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu. Compare and contrast how Emu experiences September 11th from Japan with how Dèja finds out about the events as a result of the fifteenteenth anniversary. How are families depicted in the novels? What themes emerge? How are they similar and different from one another? Students can use the symbolism of the towers to work in pairs, writing about each book inside of the space of one of the towers.
Learning About September 11th. Like Deja, your students may not know anything about September 11th prior to reading the book. As you read, document what questions they have about the event. You might want to show them pictures of the towers, as Miss Garcia does, both as they are being built and when completed. If you are working with intermediate grade students, you may not want to show them actual pictures from September 11th. Instead, you can have students read illustrated books such as Don Brown’s America is Under Attack (2011) and Janet Nolan’s Seven and Half Tons of Steel (2016). Watch your students’ responses to the texts to determine what supports they need emotionally and intellectually, and whether you want students to “do” something academic with their new information, or just let it “sit.” Those ready to learn more about the towers and the events of the day can read What Were the Twin Towers? (2016).
Duet: Writer’s Craft . After reading Towers Falling, students will likely have questions about the events of September 11th. But they may not be ready to handle an in-depth exploration of the violence and loss. For those students, focusing on the water rescues that took place that day may offer an easier “landing point,” and provide a lesson in writer’s craft as well. Have students read Maira Kalman’s Fireboat (2002) as well as Julie Gassman’s Saved by the Boats (2016). What information do they learn about the day? How are the books similar? How are they different? How does each offer a very different mood and tone? How do the illustrations and use of color achieve that mood and tone? Why would the authors make those choices? How does it influence how the information is received? Students might be satisfied simply having this information and considering writer’s craft. However, you might feel they are ready to do their own research about the day, using the resources below, and writing and illustrating their own nonfiction picture book. Or, they could use these two samples to write a nonfiction book about an event that is part of your local community’s history.
Oral Histories. Within the novel, the story resolves itself when Deja’s father shares his memories of and artifacts from September 11th. Telling his story not only changes his relationship with his daughter, but with himself. The entire family’s hopes begin to shift as he regains his voice. How do oral histories help people regain their voice or the voices of others? StoryCorps, working with the 9/11 Memorial, is attempting to conduct an oral history for every victim of the September 11th attacks. Upon completing the book, you might want to play some of those oral histories for your students. How did people in your community experience the events of that day? Have your students interview an adult in their life – parent, guardian, grandparent, neighbor – about his or her memories of September 11th, to begin your own school-based archive of memories. You may want to reach out to your local public library, historical society, or university, to see if there is an official archive being kept. These best practices from the Oral History Association may be helpful as you guide your work.
Is This Land Your Land? Text-to-Text Connections. Between the dedication page and the first chapter, the following quote appears from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” : “This land is your land/This land is my land./From California to the/New York island.” Why did the author include this? Print out or project the lyrics for the students to read and consider. Next, play several versions of the song; start with Woody Guthrie singing the song. Next, play some other artists performing the song, such as Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger together, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and The Seekers. What do your students think the song means? How do they interpret the lyrics? What does the song mean today? Is America “their land?” What similarities and differences can students hear? Ultimately, how is this song a window into the novel? How does each shine light on the other? While you can keep this activity at the discussion level, you could also extend it by asking students to demonstrate their own understanding of the connection between the two texts by creating a digital multimodal presentation using the music and lyrics.
First Responders and Health. In Towers Falling, Deja’s dad is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as lung problems as a consequence of the events of September 11th. Throughout the novel, Rhodes references how blue skies, crowds, and height upset him. His coughing keeps the family up at night. Many first responders perished on September 11th. But many lived, including those who worked “on the pile” for months afterwards, retrieving remains and cleaning up the site. The EPA said it the air was safe to breathe. But was it? Have your students explore what has happened to first responders in the aftermath, including the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 which supports the World Trade Center Health Program and the challenges faced in 2015 to renew it. You can also explore the health of others in the New Yorker metropolitan area impacted by the collapse of the towers through the World Trade Center Health Data Center. Have students conduct research on what is happening to those impacted by the events as well as on the political process through which the services are funded. What surprises them? What disappoints? What makes them proud? What can they identify as the ongoing medical needs of survivors of the attacks and their families? What public policy needs to be in place to make that happen?
Towers Falling and Hamilton: Text-to-Text Connections. Since its inception, multicultural New York City has been a beacon of hope for immigrants from around the world. Throughout Towers Falling, both the immigrant experience and the concept of American identity over time are addressed. A map of the world in the hallway of Brooklyn Collective filled with string and thumb tacks reveals that students and their families come from all over the world. As Dèja befriends Sabeen and Ben, she learns about their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences as Mexican and Turkish immigrants, and shares her mother’s experience as a Jamaican immigrant. These same themes permeate the musical Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton, one of the “founding fathers” of America, made his home in New York. As Hamilton’s lyrics suggest he was “Just another immigrant/comin’ up from the bottom.” His political and ideological beliefs shaped the concept of the United States from its earliest days. Dèja’s friend Ben even draws Ben Franklin, another founding father, into his portrait of a New York subway. After your students have read Towers Falling and discussed their own understandings of the novel with regard to race, ethnicity, and identity, as well as their own understandings of what it means to be an American, play the song “Alexander Hamilton” for them while exploring images from the show. You might want to explore interviews with the creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, and the other performers. Why are the founding fathers played by a multicultural cast? How does the casting shape our understanding of American identity? How do these two texts “talk to” one another over 240 years of history? What does it mean to be an American?
Jewell Parker Rhodes Official Website
“Ten Years Ago: Remembering September 11th” from The Classroom Bookshelf
“Teach and Learn” from the 9/11 Memorial
“911 Materials” for Teachers from the US Department of Education
“September 11th: Everything You Need to Know” from Scholastic
“Teaching 9/11, Ideas and Projects from Teachers” from The New York Times Learning Blog
September 11th and Its Aftermath Times Topic from The New York Times
“In Remembrance: Teaching September 11th” from the National History Education Clearinghouse
“Teaching 9/11 Toolkit for Educators” from the 9/11 Tribute Center
September 11, 2001 Documentary Project from The Library of Congress
“September 11th: Bearing Witness to History” from The Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The September 11th Initiative, Story Corps
Brown, D. (2011). America is under attack: September 11th 2001: The day the towers fell. New York: Square Fish/Roaring Brook Press.
Deedy, C.A. (2009). 14 cows for America. Ill. by T. Gonzalez. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
Donwerth-Chikamatsu, A. (2016). Somewhere among. New York: Caitlyn Dlouhy Book, Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Gassman, J. (2016). Saved by the boats: The heroic sea evacuation of September 11th. Ill. by S. Moors. North Mankato, MN: Capstone.
Gerstein, M. (2003). The man who walked between the towers. CT. Roaring Brook Press.
Kalman, M. (2002). Fireboat: The heroic adventures of the John J. Harvey. New York: Putnam Juvenile.
Nolan, J. (2016). Seven and a half tons of steel. Ill. by T. Gonzalez. Atlanta: Peachtree.
O’Connor, J. (2016). What were the Twin Towers?. [What Were series]. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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