Professional Learning

How to Discuss the Haiti Disaster with Your Students

January 14, 2010

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.

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