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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

Laurence Smith's picture

I hope that Elena will respond to the above comment by Linda Fanning Koos. I absolutely agree with Elena and clearly she has studied something of Haiti's history which is yet another sad story in which the United States government and major economic powers intervened time and time again. Haiti, of course, was not the only country which was a victim of political and economic imperialism. However, Haitians did receive special punishment, according to some historian's interpretations, for having the chutzpah perhaps of bucking off their colonial oppressors long before any one else in Latin America did so - and those who led the rebellion were slaves! They weren't even led by a privilged elite, as in other Latin American countries. This caused in the United States a panic amongst slave owners; "not another Haiti" they declared and panicked every time there was a slave uprising (which in the US was brutally suppressed because of this very fear).

Read up a little on the US government's military and political interventions in Haiti in this century. We live in a country where we have come to accept this history, to shrug our shoulders at another invasion onto foreign soil. Our government supported a brutal dictatorship there for decades. Do a little reading--it's all out there.

Anyway, hopefully Elena will respond. We are greatly responsible for the underdevelopment in many other countries. Who knows what choices Haitians would have made had they had more options?

Elena - thank you for speaking with such power and clarity. I wish more teachers did so.

Chelsea Vargo's picture

I found it very difficult to discuss the earthquake in Haiti with my students. I did not know how to approach such a heart wrenching topic. Some of my students had been watching the news while others had no clue. I am very happy that you wrote this because it gave me the opportunity to expand my approach. My students are in the process of collecting money to send to Haiti for relief.

Marcel B.'s picture

As a Haitian American I am deeply moved by your writing. I am a parent and my children's teacher asked me for advice on how she could talk about the earthquake. I was at a loss for words at that moment, too overwhelmed by my grief and anxiety. I came home and did some research on the internet and came across your blog. I must agree with your suggestion to teach about Haiti and Haitian culture as one response. It is so important that young children and Americans do not only learn about Haiti as a disaster, as a place of destruction and devastation. I do not want my children's classmates to just see them and think tragedy. We have a rich wonderful vibrant culture that I would like people to think of first when thinking of Haiti. I appreciate that Ms. Aguilar suggests playing Haitian music or reading a folk tale. I would very much like that for my children's class and I will suggest this to their teacher. We do not want to be defined by tragedy. We already have the label as the "poorest nation in the hemisphere." Indirectly, sometimes the media and maybe teachers validate Pat Robertson's comments by portraying us as such a desperate and devastated people.

I am studying to be a teacher and I am very happy to have found Edutopia. It is a great resource I can see. Thank you, Ms. Aguilar, for your compassionate writing and for your injunction that everyone should be doing something to help the people of Haiti.

Emily Baker's picture

This is so helpful! I teach a high school "cultural studies" class in school that has a focus on science and medicine. I felt anxious about how to respond to the Haitian disaster, but after reading this I feel more confident about going in the direction I really want to go in. That would be in exploring Haiti's history, particularly the history of underdevelopment and health care. Tomorrow I will have students start reading selections from Paul Farmer's book, and Tracey Kidder's book about Paul Farmer's work in Haiti - Mountains Beyond Mountains, the best book I've ever read about health care, how one person can change the world, and Haiti.

Thank you for your post, Elena. And to all the readers who added their comments.

Lisa Cuevas's picture

My son, who is 8 years old, and I were watching the world news last night. As we watched the latest information on Haiti we observed a youg boy of 8 balancing a bucket filled with water on his head. We discussed the importance of clean drinking water, the boys ability to help his family by securing water, and the tremendous need for assistance from contries outside of Haiti to provide sources of clean water. Today my son plans to talk to his teacher about raising money at school to support the children of Haiti. A few moments of sharing the images on the news was a learning moment for us both.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

"I wonder if we could "adopt" a school there, a sort of sister-school which we could try to support? I may look into this."

What a great idea! Please let us know if you find out how to do this. Haiti will need help for a long time and as they start re-building this could be a great way to get a school involved.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

"My students (juniors) have been very upset by this all week. They would like to create some kind of altar for those who passed away. Many of them are Mexican-American and want to do something like the day of the dead altars. They asked about doing research into how Haitians honor and remember their dead. Some students took lead into this and are going to present next week. They are having a hard time expressing their feelings. We do a lot of art at our school and they know this is a way to express emotions. I was surprised by their desire to do something like this, but I think kids, especially kids from poor countries, have more empathy for those in other places."

This sounds like a beautiful way to honor the dead and for your students to share a tradition in their own culture. Please let us know how this goes. Thank you for sharing this idea!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]As a Haitian American I am deeply moved by your writing. I am a parent and my children's teacher asked me for advice on how she could talk about the earthquake. I was at a loss for words at that moment, too overwhelmed by my grief and anxiety. I came home and did some research on the internet and came across your blog. I must agree with your suggestion to teach about Haiti and Haitian culture as one response. It is so important that young children and Americans do not only learn about Haiti as a disaster, as a place of destruction and devastation. I do not want my children's classmates to just see them and think tragedy. We have a rich wonderful vibrant culture that I would like people to think of first when thinking of Haiti. I appreciate that Ms. Aguilar suggests playing Haitian music or reading a folk tale. I would very much like that for my children's class and I will suggest this to their teacher. We do not want to be defined by tragedy. We already have the label as the "poorest nation in the hemisphere." Indirectly, sometimes the media and maybe teachers validate Pat Robertson's comments by portraying us as such a desperate and devastated people.

I am studying to be a teacher and I am very happy to have found Edutopia. It is a great resource I can see. Thank you, Ms. Aguilar, for your compassionate writing and for your injunction that everyone should be doing something to help the people of Haiti.[/quote]

Marcel:
Thank you for your comment. I hope your family is safe. Please let us know what your child's teacher does in response to the earthquake. I hope you've shared with her your hope that Haitians and Haiti won't be "defined by tragedy." And I'm glad that Edutopia will be a resource for you as a teacher - there's so much fantastic stuff on this site, as well as a dynamic community of readers.

Suzana Basaric's picture

It is wonderful to hear how you and your students are sincerely engaged in such a mission to help this devastated nation. I truly hope that your "adopted" girl is alive and well. These are the teachable moments that we as educators have to embrace. You have greatly inspired me to do initiate some similar of action with my students. While I will try to connect my curriculum with geography, history and cultural aspect of Haiti, I think the biggest lesson to learn will be the possibilities of human compassion, the importance of giving and helping people in need regardless of the nationalities, religion or race.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

[quote]The catastrophe in Haiti is terrible and needs the world's attention. For you to blame the United States makes me wonder if you are an American at heart or another one of those people who is the first person to praise our country when something good happens but also the first to blame our country for any unsavory thing that happens in the world. Haiti, and so many other islands and entities have created their own lives in this grand world. To blame the United States for the earthquake's damage is ludicrous and I am offended by your comments. I just heard over 70,000 bodies have been recovered in this horrific disaster. I have made a contribution personally, and will indeed, take up this cause in my middle school classes tomorrow. But, again, to blame the U.S. when we help the entire world is really wrong and I want to express that opinion!!![/quote]

I'm going to try to refrain from writing an essay on this one, but have to respond.

I do hold the United States, France, and our international political-economy responsible for Haiti's underdevelopment, for some of the country's political instability, and therefore for being extremely vulnerable place to a "natural disaster." Many within Haiti and abroad were aware that the nation was extremely vulnerable - there were published studies warning that if Haiti, which lies on active faults, was hit by an earthquake it would destroy Port-au-Prince.

Haiti, and especially the capital, was particularly vulnerable because of the extreme poverty in which many of its citizens live. Poverty means, for example, that houses are poorly constructed and there are slums with 200,000 people-- no roads travel through these slums, there is no running water, and few sources of food or medicine.

So the question to ask is how did Haiti become so poor? Why was it so vulnerable? Did Haitians "create their own lives" and choose this way of life?

And here I'll have to summarize and highlight a few incidents in Haitian history because this is a topic about which books have been written. (I'll suggest some readings at the end.)

* The French colonized Haiti, which they named Saint-Domingue, and which quickly became one of the wealthiest colonies in the world - or rather, the colonizers quickly became very, very wealthy. This wealth was acquired through slave labor, acquired by brutally working tens of thousands of African people to death. For the plantation owners, it was more cost effective to force Africans to work 20 hour days in the cane fields, even if it meant that they died in mass numbers. It was cheaper to work them to death and buy new slaves. One-third of the slaves taken to Haiti died within three years.

I believe in reparations -- in the US and in all the countries in the world where Africans were enslaved. The French bourgeoisie acquired their wealth in the 18th century from the unpaid labor of tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people; their descendents and French society as a whole benefited tremendously from slavery. I believe in reparations.

* In 1791 the Haitian slaves rose up and successfully won their independence. This was a first in the western hemisphere and it caused ripples of panic in other slave-owning nations. It wasn't an easy independence, however, and was followed by decades of war, foreign invasions, and political instability.

* The United States government has militarily occupied the island and intervened politically numerous times in the last 100 years. US marines occupied Haiti from 1915-34 and killed thousands of Haitians who resisted. After the invasion, the US "helped" establish an economic system which basically left the country with a doomed financial structure. This was due to a 1922 $40 million loan owed to the US and the result was a financial system that siphoned the country's wealth to offshore creditors instead of reinvesting it in the country's economy.

* From 1957 to 1986, two brutal dictators, a father and son, ruled Haiti. The United States provided military and economic aid to the country (to the dictators) during these years, years during which perhaps 30,000 Haitians were killed by the dictator.

There is so much more to say about this history--I haven't even mentioned anything about the US involvement in ousting the popularly elected-President Aristide--but I was trying not to write an essay. There's so much more to say about how international development projects in the 60s and 70s further impoverished Haiti, and how deforestation destroyed the countryside and sent hundreds of thousands of Haitians to find work in Port-au-Prince...where they constructed shacks which came down last week...and about how in the 70s Haiti became a destination for sex tourism and brought AIDS to the island.

Haiti is not just a story of tragedy, however. I highly recommend the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, about the doctor and anthropologist, Paul Farmer, and how he and a group of Haitians changed the health care system in that country. This book is a fantastic way to learn about Haitian history and about the role of the international political economy. It's also an incredibly hopeful and inspiring story. (Also see their website, www.PartnersinHealth.org ) This organization is now the most functional health care provider in Haiti and has saved thousands of lives in the last week.

For years scientists had warned that Haiti was at a major risk in a big earthquake, particularly because of the country's poverty and lack of infrastructure. Scientists have made the same warnings about the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. However, our local government has done a lot to educate people about how to prepare for such a disaster, they have subsidized retrofitting projects, demanded that schools are prepared, and have extensive plans for disaster relief. Our government can do this because it has the funds to do so. When a 7.0 earthquake happens in my area it is unlikely that 200,000 people will die.

I do believe that on many levels, the United States, France and the international community hold some responsibility for the tragedy in Haiti. There was no way to say this in a more abbreviated way--and this still feels like an incomplete account. I have to admit, Haitian history has long been a fascination for me. I was a Latin American Studies and history major in college and focused on the Caribbean; I later pursued a PhD in medical anthropology and studied the work of Paul Farmer extensively. It's a really fascinating history and particularly relevant now as we try to make sense of the disaster. I strongly urge readers to learn more about this nation and it's history.

One more recommendation: A foreign movie called "Heading South" from 2005. It's on Netflix. Another fascinating way to learn about the country.

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