My Favorite Collaborative Lesson: Talking about September 11th

In August, my school offered a school-wide professional development about Mind Brain Education (MBE) from The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). The purpose of this professional development was to identify best teaching practices that are grounded in research. 

At the end of our training, we were asked to choose three areas we wanted to focus on during the school year. One of the strategies that I decided to include this year was: Do not shy away from difficult topics with young learners; if it is part of their life, it needs to be addressed. After completing the training, I knew this was an area where I could support teachers. Literature can be the perfect vehicle to talk about tough topics.  Below is a collaborative lesson that did just that. 

Grade Level: Second and Third Grade


As September 11th approached, I talked with the second- and third-grade teachers about how they might want to share information about this day. This can be an emotional topic for some teachers and can be difficult to explain to young children. Yet, there are some amazing books that can allow for conversation and understanding. I had just gotten a copy of Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen. When I shared it with the teachers they loved it! It is the perfect mix of the serious events of the day with the positive message of hope.  

Lesson: Using Survivor Tree to Learn about September 11th

AASL Standards:

  • Inquire/Think I.A.1 – Formulating questions about personal interest or curriculum topics
  • Inquire/Grow I.D.3 – Enacting new understanding through real-world connections. 


  • Survivor Tree by Marcie Colleen
  • KVEA Planks (or some other type of block)
  • Leaf cutouts


  • 5 min: Introduction: We started by asking students if they heard of September 11th before. We shared some basic information about the events. Some of the students were able to add information that they knew as well.  
  • 10 min: Read Aloud: The classroom teacher and I took turns reading each page of the book. We encouraged students to ask questions while we read and we discussed what they were noticing in the book.  The illustrations give you a lot to talk about!
  • 5 min: Look at Primary Sources: Although the illustrations of the story are amazing, we wanted students to see photographs as well. We were able to collect a variety of photographs for students to look at and we could discuss.  
  • 10 min: Build a Survivor Tree: Students worked with a partner to build their own Survivor Tree. To make their tree, each group was given a set of 20 KEVA planks and leaf cutouts. When they finished they shared why they built their tree the way they did and what their tree represents.


  • Students will share questions or reflections while reading the book. 
  • Students will build a Survivor Tree and share what it represents based on the story.

Tips & Tricks: 

  • This lesson was planned for 30 minutes, but really we needed 45-60 minutes to do it well. With most of the classes, the teacher had students build their trees back in their classrooms. Most of the classes had a lot of questions and really liked looking at the primary sources. The teachers and I felt that answering their questions with honest, simple answers was important. We did not want to speed through it!
  • The pictures in this book really help to tell the story. It was helpful for us to show the book using a document camera while we read so they could see the detail and it would help guide the discussion.
  • You don’t have to use the KVEA planks. That is what we had available and they are really fun to build with. However, you really could use any type of block.  
  • We all decided that we would like to see the Survivor Tree in person someday!

What books are you using to tackle tough topics? I would love to hear how you are using them!


Author: Kelly Hincks

I am the librarian at Detroit Country Day Lower School in Bloomfield Hills, MI. I have worked as a school librarian for the past eleven years. I was a classroom teacher for four years prior to that. I have worked in charter, public, and private schools. My favorite thing about being a school librarian is the opportunities I have to work both with students and teachers. I love the co-teaching opportunities and connections I have been able to make! I have served on AASL committees as a member and chair. I currently serve as secretary of my state association, Michigan Association of School Librarians (MASL).

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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