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U.S. Schools Find Lessons in Tsunami

By Jessica L. Tonn, Andrew Trotter & Vaishali Honawar — January 11, 2005 5 min read
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The earthquake and resulting tsunami that wracked coastlines along the Indian Ocean and killed an estimated 150,000 people or more prompted generosity and classroom lessons in U.S. schools last week.

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Join a readers’ discussion on the tsunami.

As schools reopened after the holiday break, students and teachers were talking about the Dec. 26 temblor that struck western Indonesia and the devastating effects. Flags were flying at half-staff to honor the dead, relief money was being raised, and science and social studies classes were seeking to understand the natural disaster and its long-term implications for human welfare.

Teachers on Christmas vacation had ample time before classes resumed to reflect on how to address the catastrophe—and to gauge the appropriate presentation for students of different ages.

Elise Bennett, a 2nd grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Lowell, Mass., talks with her students about what they can do to help the tsunami disaster survivors.

The teaching profession has gained new experience in that balancing act since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Peggy Altoff, the social studies facilitator for the 30,000-student Colorado Springs, Colo., district.

Ms. Altoff, who is also the vice president of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies, said she reminds her teachers that there is no single best response to an event of such magnitude.

To be sure, teachers have taken various tacks in different districts, schools, grades, and classrooms. Many geography and social studies teachers devoted classes all last week to the destruction that hit across South Asia as far as the east coast of Africa.

Adjusting the Curriculum

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, in Arlington, Va., said his organization had received 300 e-mails just three hours after it sent its members a query about how they were incorporating the tsunami disaster into lesson plans.

“Teachers have essentially moved their curriculum around to make lessons centered around this,” Mr. Wheeler said. He added that teachers have used resources such as the Web—and even bathtubs—to help students better understand tsunamis, huge sea waves caused by major under-ocean disturbances such as earthquakes.

Mary E. Warren, a science teacher at the 1,200-student Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake, Ill., said the disaster, from the perspective of her subject, brought together such topics as energy transfer, plate tectonics, and the way in which waves travel. “It was a perfect opportunity to bring science they have learned into events that were happening in the world,” she said.

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She had her students spend a day reading articles she had collected from newspapers and the Internet. The next day, they created a timeline on a world map showing how the disaster unfolded. Now they are writing one-page essays on different aspects of the tsunami.

“Many have been going home and watching CNN because there are so many stories that can give them an idea of what their focus can be,” she said.

Last month, before the disaster, 12th graders in Marisa Cicconi’s class at the 1,500-student Plum Borough Senior High School in New Kensington, Pa., completed research papers on earthquakes and how they can cause tsunamis. When they returned to school, they were full of questions—and Ms. Cicconi was ready with videotapes from the television news.

But even as she engaged in an opportunity for such teaching, Ms. Cicconi said, she and her students were keeping in mind the overwhelming human tragedy and natural destruction along the Indian Ocean.

In social studies, Ms. Altoff said, the best way to teach about the disaster is to link it to something the students are already learning or already know. For example, she said, how the natural catastrophe might affect existing conflicts in Sri Lanka and on the Indonesian island of Sumatra would be an important area of discussion.

She said it is more appropriate for high school teachers to cover the subject in greater detail than their elementary counterparts. Ms. Altoff warned that smaller children could be easily overwhelmed by disaster coverage.

Such was the dilemma Carla McDermott Walls faced when she entered her 1st grade classroom at Titus Elementary School in Warrington, Pa., on Monday morning of last week. A coordinator for a program that incorporates global themes in all subjects in the 19,000-student Central Bucks County school district, she knew that she should address the issue, but didn’t want to frighten her 24 students.

But when she pulled down the world map to talk about an unrelated topic, the pupils immediately bombarded her with questions about the tsunami.

The class then resolved to collect money for the victims, with one child even pledging his earnings from the tooth fairy. The collection jar in the classroom is now filling with change and bills, which her students were planning to count as part of a math lesson.

‘Show Compassion’

Fund raising took on a different kind of intensity in schools with large populations of children from the affected countries, such as India and Sri Lanka.

For instance, John P. Stevens High School in Edison, N.J., where nearly half the 2,150 students are of Indian origin, mobilized immediately after school reopened Jan. 3 to aid fund-raising efforts, said Principal Fred J. Riccio. The school’s student council and honor society have teamed up to raise money and collect health-kit items. The school is also donating the money from the sale of its school-spirit bracelets—green rubber wristbands—to tsunami relief, Mr. Riccio said.

American students from an international school in Phuket, Thailand, help with a cleanup effort along Patong Beach in southern Thailand this month. In the United States, schools are helping to raise money for disaster relief.

In California’s Fremont school district, Warwick High School—where one-fifth of the 860 students are of Indian origin—is sending out fliers asking students and their families to make donations to the Red Cross.

“We read recently that 60 cents is enough to feed a child for a day in that part of the world,” said Christopher E. Hertz, the school’s principal. “So we tell children that they can donate a dollar at least. We want to make this an opportunity for our children to show compassion to other children in the world.”

Jana S. Eaton, a teacher at the 1,200-student Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pa., reported a similar level of engagement among her 10th and 12th graders.

Her classroom’s fund-raising drive has now enlisted the entire 3,600-student Unionville-Chadds Ford district. Her students have been researching charities online in order to find the most reputable and effective organizations to receive the funds.

Well-known relief agencies, such as the American Red Cross, Save the Children, and Care USA, are accepting money raised by schools. Save the Children offers a school fund-raising kit on its Web site, savethechildren.org.

Ms. Eaton, meanwhile, has been an especially valuable resource not only to her students, but also to her fellow teachers and community members. She spent six weeks on the eastern coast of India, near the area hit by the tsunami, last summer on a Fulbright fellowship.

“People want to know why so many people were living there, why some areas have been so hard to get to, and why the devastation has been so bad,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as U.S. Schools Find Lessons in Tsunami


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