Art from Tragedy: Remembering 9/11

Learning how to create a play based on interviews


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies:
Creative Thinking: Creativity and Innovation, Communication and Collaboration
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Making Art: Composing and Planning


In this four-day lesson, students will be reading Anne Nelson’s play, The Guys, not only as a vehicle for remembrance, but also as a mentor text for their own playwriting. Over the course of four classes, students will interview their peers about their memories of September 11th, 2001, and use those memories to craft a one-act play for performance.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Become familiar with 9/11 through documentary footage and reading Anne Nelson’s The Guys
  • Learn and practice interview skills
  • Write up interviews into narrative speeches
  • Research historic and/or contemporary tragedies
  • Write brief 5-minute scenes inspired by tragedy and/or student interviews
  • Use journaling to reflect on life experiences, learning, and performances

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Group or Individual Instruction
  • Multimedia Instruction

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • DVD Player
  • Television
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Read Anne Nelson’s play The Guys

Prior Activities

While it is not necessary for teachers to obtain a copy of the film The Guys, it is advised in order to give as much detail to the lesson.

The teacher might choose to show the film The Guys in its entirety. The film is available to purchase on DVD and Streaming from various online sources.

Physical Space



Heterogenous Grouping


Make sure that a television with DVD player/LCD projector and screen are available. The teacher may also want to cue desired scenes from The Guys and 9/11 in advance.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1.    Have students engage in a brief reflective writing exercise: 

  • Ask students to take five minutes and write to the following prompt: Where were you on September 11th, 2001? 
  • Make sure to tell students that this is a free write. There is no right or wrong answer, and the only rule is that they must write for the entire five minutes. 
  • Set aside at least five minutes for sharing; it will become apparent that students know about 9/11, but many do not remember the details of the day because they were eight years old or very young at the time at most.

2.   View clips from 9/11 on the Internet Archive site, "Understanding 9/11":

  • Students can explore as a class or individually, but remember that this site is an archive of a majority of news footage from the hour preceding the attack up to a week later. Clips are the actual broadcasts from 2001, and you should be aware of community standards in your school when exploring and sharing footage from the events of 9/11.
  • Clips are intended to add an aspect of reality and humanity to what has become an historical event for high school students. They will also give students a visual reference point for their reading of The Guys
  • Students can also view clips from the documentary 9/11 from Paramount Pictures. This documentary will give students perspective on what it meant to be a "probie" firefighter in New York on 9/11. Clips are available online, and the DVD is also available for purchase.

3.    Discuss clips from "Understanding 9/11" and/or 9/11:

  • Discussion will use the “Think, Pair, Share” format. The teacher should bring the students together for a full-class discussion of these questions. By using the Think, Pair, Share format, students should be a bit more comfortable discussing this sensitive subject matter with the larger peer group.
  • Students will most likely be disturbed by the images they have just seen, so care should be taken to ensure that the discussion remains appropriate and free of preconceived notions and prejudices. 
  • Prior to discussion, have students revisit their quick writes from the beginning of class. Give them 3-4 minutes to add their impressions of what they just viewed. (THINK) 
  • Students should get into pairs and discuss the following questions (PAIR): 
    • How did your childhood memory of 9/11 relate to the clips you just viewed? 
    • Did the clips change your perception of 9/11? Why or why not? 
  • At the end of the discussion, the teacher will ask one final question of the class (SHARE): Can tragic events such as 9/11 inspire art? Why would an artist (musician, writer, painter, etc…) create art from tragedy? 

4.    Hand out copies of Anne Nelson’s The Guys and begin reading: 

  • Have students read the preface in class. This can be done aloud or silently, depending on the learning group. The preface is Anne Nelson’s 9/11 story; once students are finished reading, revisit the final discussion question above. 
  • Following the discussion, students should begin reading the play aloud with their discussion partners: one student as Joan, and one as Nick. 
  • Students should finish reading the play for homework, and write a very short journal (approximately 250 words) about their reactions to the play.

Build Knowledge

1. Have students share their homework journals: 

  • With their reading partners, have students share their homework journals. 
  • After approximately five minutes, have students come together and share their reactions with the class as a whole.

2. Discuss interviewing skills with students:

  • Have students watch a clip from the DVD of "The Guys" from 11 minutes to 19 minutes. In the scene, Joan beings interviewing Nick and starts forming the first Eulogy. You can also choose to have students read the same scene from the play aloud.
  • After the clip is over, make a list on the board of the questions. Discuss which questions worked, which did not, and why. 
  • Make a second list on the board of good interviewing skills. How did Joan get Nick to open up? What questions did she ask? Were they open-ended or close-ended? How often did she use follow-up questions? What was her demeanor? Why is Joan a good interviewer?

3. Students will now learn about and explore interviewing skills:

  • Have students once again revisit their first journals. Working with their reading partners, students should swap journals; they will be interviewing each other about where they were on 9/11. 
  • Before the interview begins, students should make a list of five open-ended questions to ask their partner, with the knowledge that they will be using follow-up questions. 
  • Give students 30 minutes to conduct their interviews, approximately 15 minutes per student. Make sure students take accurate interview notes.

4. Review interview skills and have students write up their own interviews:

  • Watch another scene from The Guys on DVD. This time, from 1:01-1:04. Joan is now reading back a eulogy to Nick.
  • What makes this eulogy so powerful? Why does Joan become overwhelmed? 
  • Using their interview notes, students should write a first draft of a monologue based on their interview. Each monologue should begin with “My name is (student’s first name) and I was (insert where he/she was on 9/11).” Example: “My name is Erinn and I was sitting in my dorm room eating chips and sour cream and onion dip.” 
  • After that first sentence, they should write about their partner’s experience from a first-person point of view. If at any point the writer has questions or wants to run the draft by his/her partner, they should feel free to do so. 
  • During the drafting process, the teacher should circulate and make a brief list of the experiences students are describing to be used on Day Three. 
  • Students should finish the first draft for homework and have it ready for class the next day.

5. In small groups, have students collaboratively craft a one-act play:

  • In preparation for the class, the teacher should look at the list of experiences and put students with similar stories into groups. 
  • Students should be prepared to share their work with their partner to make sure the stories are accurate. 
  • After about ten minutes, the teacher should explain the final assignment to students. As a class, they will be creating a one-act play revolving around where they were on 9/11. 
  • Put students in groups. As a group, their task is to blend their monologues into short scenes, no longer than five minutes. They can revise and create dialogues, or combine their writing into a monologue for multiple voices. Regardless of the eventual form, each person in the group needs to include the “My name is…” statement in the scene. 
  • The rest of the class period should be spent writing and rehearsing. Students should remember to work on blocking, not just reciting their lines.


1. Give students time to rehearse their plays:

  • Before the beginning of class, the teacher should arrange the room so that there is a make-shift "stage" at the front of the room, and the desks/tables are arranged for an audience. At the start of class, students will rehearse in their groups for no more than 20 minutes. Students should pay particular attention to delivery of the lines as well as movement around the classroom's "stage," located at the front of the classroom. 

2. Have students perform their plays for the class: 

  • After the rehearsal time is finished, student groups will perform their scenes.


1. Have students perform a self-evaluation through extended journaling:

  • After the performances, students should reflect on the total experience of the lesson. The teacher will have them write a journal based on the following questions: 
    • Why is art important in times of tragedy? 
    • What did you learn through reading The Guys and creating a one-act play that led you to that conclusion? 
    • How has your perception of the events of September 11th, 2001, changed as a result of this lesson?


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 1: Script writing through improvising, writing, and refining scripts based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 2: Acting by developing, communicating, and sustaining characters in improvisations and informal or formal productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 5: Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 7: Analyzing, critiquing, and constructing meanings from informal and formal theatre, film, television, and electronic media productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 8: Understanding context by analyzing the role of theatre, film, television, and electronic media in the past and the present

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Language Arts Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes



Erinn Harris

Editors & Producers



The Guys. Dir. Jim Simpson. Perf. Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia. Universal, 2003. Film.

9/11. Dir. James Hanlon, Rob Klug, Gedeon Naudet, and James Naudet. Perf. Tony Benatatos, Jamal Braithwaite, and Joseph Pfeifer. CBS, 2002. Film.

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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