How to Discuss the Haiti Disaster with Your Students | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The unthinkable happened in Haiti on January 12, when a massive earthquake destroyed the nation's capital city and killed tens of thousands of people. The magnitude of the devastation is still unknown, but the stories and images coming out of Port-au-Prince are haunting. There is no doubt that life in Haiti -- already the poorest country in the hemisphere -- has just become much, much more difficult.

All day long, as I heard the news and read reports coming from the island, I was overwhelmed by my feelings of wanting to do something, and by the frustration of not feeling like there is anything I can do. It doesn't feel like it's enough to donate money to relief organizations (although it's definitely needed).

Teachable Moments

Today, I really missed being in the classroom. When I was teaching and a catastrophic event happened, I felt like I could do something: I could support kids in how to think about a tragedy like this one, I could cultivate empathy in children, I could help them analyze media coverage, or I could provide them with history to understand the situation.

If I was in the classroom right now, I think I'd also take the opportunity to teach kids something about Haiti: play Haitian music, read a folktale, learn some geography -- and for older students, I'd teach them something about Haiti's amazing history.

For those who don't know, Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion, and the first postcolonial independent, black-led nation in the world.

I'd expand students' knowledge of the country and its people so that their impressions of Haiti are not only one of tragedy.

I was teaching when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I helped students organize a drive to collect donations for schools. I designed a number of lessons on critically analyzing the media coverage. I also pushed students to explore the concept of a natural disaster.

I thought about this today. The earthquake in Haiti is not a natural disaster; the disaster is the result of underdevelopment, poverty, and a complex series of political and economic decisions made by first world powers over the last 200 years. The earthquake has exposed Haiti's desperate poverty; it is underdevelopment that is a disaster.

If I was teaching kids right now, I'd find some way to communicate this fact to them. It feels urgent. It makes what has happened in Haiti something that the world is responsible for -- particularly the United States and France, Haiti's former colonizers. But you'd have to understand something about Haiti's history in order to understand why I'm saying that.

Service and Solidarity

I'd help students think about what they could do to help others -- what they can do right now to help Haitians, and what they might do one day to help others. I'm really big on the idea that everyone should contribute to the world, and I find that children are easily engaged with this notion. They want to be of service to people, or animals, or the environment. In my experience, kids really want opportunities to volunteer and help.

Perhaps in learning about the desperate need in Haiti right now for doctors or nurses, or for sniffer dogs or people who speak French or Creole, a child might be inspired to pursue a career that one day could lead them into a tragedy like this one to help others.

And so I'd use this situation to push this idea: We all belong to the same planet and have a responsibility to help each other. What can you do? What will you do?

I think I'd also push the idea of solidarity, a concept we should reclaim and resurrect: What can a group of kindergartners do in solidarity with the people of Haiti? What does it mean to be in solidarity with a group of people? What are the many ways we can show our solidarity?

It's really about building empathy, opening our hearts, and expanding our notion of who belongs in our community. As an educator, I often feel like this is my primary charge -- all I really aspire to do.

Readers, please share: How have you addressed catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti in the classroom? What have you done or what might you do with students in response to the earthquake? What are the opportunities for teaching that can come out of this tragedy? Please contribute your thoughts and ideas.

Comments (43)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Natalie G.'s picture

This is a fantastic blog! I have read so many blogs but never felt inspired to comment and so this is the first time I've done this. I think it was your last comment, Elena, that inspired me to do so. Honestly, I didn't think I was going to read that long thing, but as I started reading I found I couldn't stop. I am so interested in reading more about Haiti and will check out the resources you suggest. I totally agree that it's now our responsibility to learn about this history and understand what really happened there. I'm horrified by the responsibility my government may play, but I know I need to know about it.

It's been so sad to see what's happened in Haiti. My students (8th graders) really want to help and I didn't know what to suggest other than donating money. I think I have some ideas now.

Thank you for writing this. It's kind of cool to see that a teacher also has such a deep knowledge of history and politics. Sometimes people think of us as not really knowing much of anything but obviously you debunk that myth. I would love to read more of your ideas on teaching history and stuff.

Natalie G.'s picture

By the way, I am with you 100% on reparations. I'm a white woman from a fairly wealthy New England family. I know that my ancestors profited from the slave trade. This horrifies me. But I know that the poverty within which many of my students live (I teach in Georgia) is a result of what my ancestors did. I totally support reparations. So THANK YOU for saying this and for bringing it up! If nothing else, more people should be saying this.

Alyssa Harlan's picture

Thank you for the focus and perspective on helping Haiti while also teaching our students of the Haitian culture which extends far beyond victim status. My daughter (4th grade) was so moved by her inability to do much to help that she created to give all kids an easy way to contribute. You all have provided me with some good ideas for adding some lesson plans to the site soon as well. Thank you.

It has been my experience that no one embraces a cause as quickly and passionately as a child, and it is up to us as teachers to provide opportunities for putting compassion and activism into action.

Ann Ayers's picture

If your classes or groups are looking for a way to help the people in Haiti who were affected by the terrible earthquake, you might want to make "Haiti Houses" to sell. They're easy to make out of scrap matboard/cardboard and they're easy to sell - plus, your students/members will feel like they have done something good.

We started this project and made a website for it in September,, after we saw a presentation on the living conditions in Haiti. After the earthquake, this seemed VERY timely and we "pushed" it out to all of our art teacher connections and our "Pinwheels for Peace" participants. Since we did that over a week ago, we have heard of hundreds of schools and other groups (scouts, church groups) all over the United States and Canada that are making and selling the "Haiti Houses".

On the site, there are written directions and a mini-movie to see how to create the pins/magnets, but of course, like all projects, you can put your own spin on it. We sell them for $5 each. Our students are planning to sell them at school and then at the local shopping area on the weekend. We will donate the money to Food for the Poor (we have a link to them on our Haiti Houses site, as well as to other relief sites.)

Our students are eagerly working on these and feel like they are contributing something. The power of art!

Let us know if you have any questions.

Ann & Ellen

S. Barber's picture

At my school, we raised money for Haiti. A teacher thought it would be a great idea for each classroom to get a jug, and fill it with as much money as possible. She called it "Jugs for Haiti." The class that raised the most money received a pizza party. I was amazed to learn that one class in the school was able to raise over three hundred dollars within just one week! My class did not raise much, but for me it was the thought of the matter that really counted.

Rachel Aderholdt's picture
Rachel Aderholdt
2nd grade teacher in Skopje, Macedonia

Thank you so much for this blog! I completely agree that we need to allow students time to sit and reflect on what is happening in the world, especially with crises like the earthquake in Haiti. But I also believe that we must not just reflect and encourage awareness, but that we should actively help those in need. I work in an elite, private international school, and I admit, I often have a difficult time knowing how to address these issues with younger students. I would like to make them aware of natural disasters and the people who are living amongst them so that they can develop a sense of solidarity with people who are far away as well as see the need to serve them in whatever capacity they can. How does a teacher protect students from graphic images and things that they are not mature enough to understand or handle, and yet encourage them to empathize with other people they will never meet? I chose to talk to my students and then brainstorm ways we could help, and my class of 2nd graders decided to make posters to raise awareness and then to create a bake sale for our school community. I was super excited to see them so involved and to have a genuine desire to help the Haitians, and we donated the money to UNICEF. Though this is great, I still feel like there is something more we should be doing as educators to help our students truly understand the magnitude of something like this. Does anyone have other ideas they can share, specifically for lower level elementary students?

Wanda Gonzalez's picture

You just gave me an idea. I know there are many people from my city who actually went to Haiti to assist in anyway possible. I am going to have my fourth graders make them thank you cards to show their appreciation. I can only imagine how the rescue workers are dealing with the tragedy they witnessed. They are heros and should be honored.

ty stover's picture

Many great comments and information,thanks. I find it very hard, with the students I deal with on a daily basis, to develop a sense of empathy when dealing with such disasterous events. Many of my students are emotionally challenged and have a hard time in their own life dealing with their own problems. Discussing such events is like walking on egg shells, but it is needed for my students to develop empathy skills.

Lauren Goldstein's picture
Lauren Goldstein
1st Grade Teacher from NJ

I agree that it is important to help children understand what happened in Hati. As a teacher of young students, the school came together to decide what to do and how to teach about a catastrophe like this to such young children. The entire school has decided to do a month long project to raise money for the people of Hati. Each grade level will be working to sell homemade projects for the relief effort in Hati. I plan on reading some books to help children understand what life was like in Hati before the earthquake.Understanding the conditions in which people were living before the earthquake should help the students grasp the difficult time these people are having to survive now. It is also important to screen what the children will see so as not to upset any students. It is a fine line between "enthusiasm to help" and "hopelessness and fear." Thanks for all of the great ideas.

Sherena Perkins's picture

It was very hard for me to try and explain to my students the disaster that happened in Haiti. I discuss that topic in a way where they would understand. So I talked to them and told them what happened and many of them asked "why" and "how". During snack time, I explained how some little boys and girls are starving and dont have anything to eat. Some of them thought about how blessed they are (I teach in a private christian school) and how they wish they could do something. We plan to make cards and send them to some of the children in Haiti to encourage them and to tell them that we love and care about them. Elena that sounds like a good idea, to adopt a school there! Would you please let me know what you find? I would love to do anything to help.

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