How to Discuss the Haiti Disaster with Your Students | Edutopia
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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

sulaima elmi's picture

I am an unemployed teacher on supply in Scotland (Scottish/Somali). I'm sitting researching about Haiti so that I can hopefully provide Scottish teachers with some resources, ideas and stimuli - like teachers everywhere they are hard-worked and creating new resources is time consuming. As I'm unememployed I have little money to donate but hope that this can help teachers clear some time in a busy curriculum to deal with this important issue and support their learners to develop a constructive response as it is all too easy to feel powerless to make a difference, short and long term, when faced with this scale of suffering. I empathise strongly with the Haitians as I have never been able to return to Mogadishu - the place of my birth - which I fear will never be rebuilt in my lifetime.

Andrew Pass's picture

If you are looking for discussion prompts about the situation in Haiti you might check out my blog: Techo Lesson. I have written four different posts filled with questions.

sulaima elmi's picture

Thank you Andrew for sharing your ideas and links - you've posed thought provoking questions.

Elena thank you for your blog - you've lead me to Edutopia through googling this disaster.

Mary Blain's picture

I am a high school French teacher from Michigan. I am devastated by these events as are my students. We "adopted" a young Haitian girl about five years ago and have been sending her letters of support/encouragement as well as money over the past five years. We do not know if she is injured or even alive at this point. We are awaiting word. We too feel helpless. My French students mobilized last week and we will be selling "HELP HAITI" tshirts starting tomorrow. We are hoping to be able to send $1000 or even $2000 to Haiti. At least it is SOMETHING. The world must not forget the catastraphe of this, one of the poorest countries in the world!

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Thanks for your blog Elena.

For those of you that may want some additional resources on Haiti, I've started discussion in our new online community that has some great resources.

Peter Billingsley's picture
Peter Billingsley
World and American History instructor for Florida Virtual School

With world interest focused on Haiti, now is an excellent time to explore Haitian history. A quick overview, including a plea for an indepth look at Haitian history can be found at the Democracy Now!, wihich features an interview with Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, who offers a non mainstream take on recent political events in Haiti.

Peter Billingsley
Florida Virtual School

Jalani Black's picture

Thank you for writing this! There was an excellent interview on CBS last night about Haiti. I recorded it to show my students. We will use some of your ideas and I'll let you know what we do. I agree that kids should not just learn about Haiti as a tragedy, but as a complex society with its own history and culture. Teachers have a moral imperative to educate kids about this tragedy.

Linda Fanning Koos's picture

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!!!

Marti Sanchez's picture

Lesson planning this afternoon - trying to think about how to talk about Haiti this week with my seventh graders - discovered Edutopia and Elena's blog. It's FANTASTIC! I just read all your articles that are here and I love your ideas and your opinions. This one about how to talk about Haiti is so useful. I'm a new teacher and sometimes I worry about talking about current events or things that might be seen as political. Thanks for giving me some ideas and for urging me to do this. I feel it's what we should do and now I have some ideas of how to do it.

I'd really like to read more articles by you about how to talk about current events, how to negotiate "political" issues, how to teach about social justice. I can't thank you enough though for this article - I am ready for this week now! (And I'm also excited to have discovered Edutopia - I can see there's a lot here that I'm going to have to explore.) Thanks, Elena.

Gema S. Duran's picture

Thanks for sharing----Since our school is already collecting food and other essentials to send to Haiti, I decided that as an incentive for my second grade Social Studies classes, I would give an extra credit (A) to each student that donated an item. I also asked each student to create a colorful home-made card to send as an extra bonus... We will continue to explore Haiti and its culture as part of our lessons in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for providing additional resources.

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