The Q&A: Professor Mary Margaret Kerr Studies Flight 93 Memorial from Children’s Point of View

by John Conroy

Mary Margaret Kerr, professor at the School of Education, has worked for five years as part of a University of Pittsburgh research team that helped create the Flight 93 National Memorial children’s Junior Ranger program. The team also helped study items children left or sent to the memorial, which are now part of a new exhibit titled “Through Their Eyes.” In addition, Kerr was selected in 2016 to serve on the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial’s Board of Directors, where she focuses on the memorial’s new learning center.

What is the importance of the artwork and notes children wrote to the Flight 93 Memorial?
Research tells us about children’s response to the 9/11 attacks in New York, but there is no published research on children’s responses to the Flight 93 attack. Studying the tributes is one way of revealing a child’s point of view.

Why do you need a child’s point of view?
Children’s perspectives are essential. Here’s why:

  • Children’s understanding, learning, and ways of exploring an event differ from those of adults. For example, young children do not understand the finality of death, so they will not comprehend this event as adults do. The tributes help us figure out how to explain an event in ways that make sense to them.
  • When a site is associated with terrorism, children may experience distress, fear, and confusion. Understanding their fears —as well as what helps them cope—can help us protect them.  
  • When children arrive at a site, they explore differently, too. What is important for adults to see and learn may not be so important for children. The tributes give us clues for planning exhibits and activities for younger visitors.

Tell us about your team.
We are a multidisciplinary team of volunteers from many fields including child psychology, art therapy/art education, history, education, reading, library science, trauma/mental health, and architecture. The team includes Pitt faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and community specialists. Even Falk School students help us field test our materials for children!

What does the team do with the tributes?
We photograph each one, enter information about it into a file, and then we use specialized methods to identify themes, recurring images, and emotions the children expressed in their art and writing. We publish these findings so others can understand children’s responses not only to this attack but also to other mass trauma events such as school shootings and natural disasters.  

What have you found?
Children are empathic. Even at very young ages, children understand that people suffered and that families lost loved ones.

Children are hopeful.  Many of the tributes call for peace, unity, and love. Few reveal anger or revenge.

Children are patriotic. Most of the tributes reveal children’s sense of citizenship, through words and through drawings in red, white, and blue. We see many flags!

Specifically, how does the research help the Flight 93 National Memorial?
The research informed the Junior Ranger Program for young visitors. Here are three examples:

  • Children left tributes such as toys, crafts, drawing, and messages at the crash site.  Because of this, the Junior Ranger booklet shows drawings of tributes, with an invitation for the child to write or draw their own tribute.
  • Children often drew first responders, so the Junior Ranger booklet has an activity for young children about helpers such as firefighters and paramedics.
  • Flags appear on one page, because we often saw flags in the children’s tributes.
  • The children’s perspectives help the Flight 93 National Memorial staff and volunteers plan educational programs and exhibits for young visitors.

Are you doing research anywhere else?
Yes, we study children’s letters and art sent to the Pentagon, following the 9/11 attack. We also study children’s comments left at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. And we travel with 50 eighth-graders from Ohio on their Washington, DC trip each year, so they can co-research with us at some of the sites. That has been so much fun. They have many insights.

Why is this work important to you?
As a crisis responder, I’ve worked with children after two other plane crashes, so  I know how devastating mass trauma can be for the survivors.  If we can help young tourists a little bit, I am grateful.

This experience not only allows me to work alongside a talented Pitt team and—importantly—with outstanding undergraduates.  I don’t teach undergraduates, so this has been wonderful.  I also work with the devoted National Park Service staff and others who work or volunteer. They’ve taught me so much.

How did you initially become involved?
I was asked to give a talk at a conference on children’s trauma, cosponsored by the National Park Service.

JOHN CONROY is manager of marketing communications for the School of Education.