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.

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

Thanks for these great ideas. The school where I teach will be holding weekly fundraisers by each grade level to contribute to the relief effort in Hati. All of the teachers will be incorporating Hati into their lesson plans. There are so many great ways to bring Hati education into the curriculum. Some of the ideas I have been thinking about are:
1. Learning about Hati through a Non-fiction book study
2. Math lessons for division of supplies and Money collection
3. History of countries (including Hati)
4. Letter writing to children and students in Hati

I am wondering what other lessons teachers have thought about doing realted to Hati. I teach elementary school and would love some more great ideas. Thanks!

Monica Noel's picture

I agree with you on all points! It is so important to communicate with our students. We cannot shelter them from everything that is going on around them. When something happens, that is so devastating, like the earthquake in Haiti, I think that we as teachers have a responsiblity to open up a dialogue with our students about what is going on. Most of my students and their families cannot afford to donate very much so when I see my students come in with a bottle of shampoo, or a coat, or through in a dollar into our Help Haiti jar, I know that they are sacrificing something to be able to donate. I have created an environment in my classroom of open communication. I, of course, communicate with my students but they also communicate with me and they seem to communicate with each other well. I feel that when students feel safe to ask questions then they will want to find solutions.

Lynne Wright's picture

Many of our students came into school that morning filled with questions. We watched and discussed some of the footage being shown of CNN. Afterwards, we used this earthquake as a springboard for discussing and looking at via the SmartBoard, major earthquakes in the last 100 years. While the lesson began on a somber note, by the end the students were able to take something positive away with them.

Dave Grassie's picture
Dave Grassie
sixth grade science teacher in irvington,, nj

Not much to add to this discussion. I work in Irvington, Nj and we have a large Haitian popilataion. I teach science, and not so long ago we were discussing plate tectonics and so forth, but when we came back to school I wasn't prepared to discuss this with my students. There were three children in my homeroom that were Haitian, and still had family there. Sadly, as it turns out, one student lost a 15 year old cousin, and another student still has not heard any news from family about both sets of grandparents and other family members. I have watched carefully how they are coping with this tragedy, and after a meeting with the district head, we as a staff in sixth grade decided not to reteach earthquakes. We talked with the counselors and they agreed that the 6th grade would only mention facts and teachings if directly asked. The thing that I have learned is that the Haitian family closeness is quite strong, and these childeren in our school community have deeply been affected. On a brighter side, we have put together a Hatian Relief Fund drive throughout this week, and I truly believe that this spirited cause has helped not only those students who were directly affected - but also is helping the other students come together in the campaign of human compassion and charity.

Nikki Coleman's picture

What a wonderful blog! I know I am late to join in the discussion, but I am very new to blogging. I teach Pre-Kindergarten and our school (pre-K to 4th) has started a drive "Hands for Haiti". I thought it imperative that my students know more than just "something bad happened in a place far from here and they need our help". My students and for that matter, all students are capable of internalizing this information, so I explained it. I explained it to the best of my knowledge while paying close attention to their reactions every step of the way. They were completely captivated. They sat quietly as I pointed to the tiny island on our classroom globe. Their eyes widened as I explained that boys and girls lost their homes,toys and even their parents. I thought, prematurely, that the conversation was finished after I ended by saying "so please, let's open up our hearts and give money to Haiti".

The hands started popping up with question after question. It was a wonderful moment for me, because this group of typically ego centric 4 and 5 year olds were now worried about children they have never met. "Is Haiti broken?" "Who broke Haiti?" " I will bring my hammer there and fix it". "My mommy told me that Haiti was hurting?" "Is Haiti a girl?" "They can't drink the water cause they will get sick". " I feel sad that the earth broke in Haiti". "Did the grass break too?" "where did the animals go". This question and to the best of my ability, answer session lasted for quite a while. I drew pictures and we acted out scenarios using the children as well as props to answer their questions and help them process what happened.

Last Friday, one of my students who didn't say much during the conversation abruptly interrupted me during center time and said while holding the classroom globe, "look it, Mrs. Coleman that's Haiti riiiiight there!" What a gift.

Thank you for the idea of bringing in Haitian music. I am planning a Haitian celebration on Friday, as it is the last day of our "Hands for Haiti" drive.

Jalon Ross's picture

Hello All !
Im a 2nd Grade teacher and felt compelled to share insights of the devestation with my class also. Though they are too young to know all the "ghory" details, I wanted them to be aware of our world and to know that unfortuante things do happen. After several days of pondering ideas of what to do, our class decided to donate bottles of water to send to Haiti through Red Cross. We also dedicated our outside bullentin board to show our support to Haiti as well. Overall, I was very pleased with the way that my students handled this situation as well as eagerness to assist those in need. In additon to learning about a new country, my students will hopefully grow up to be helpful citizens that will aid those in need.

Doug Rupe's picture

This article made me realize that I should have incorporated world events into my classroom. I should have taken some time to teach about the history of Haiti to help the students understand and have an appreciation for life.

Candace's picture
Fourth grade science and social studies teacher

My instant reaction is to shelter my kids from the tragedy, but that would be disservice to my students. I like the idea of discussing with students about the history, culture, etc. of Haiti. It's important in developing them into responsible and compassionate citizens.

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