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Disasters: Pairing Prevention With Preparedness in the Classroom

September is National Preparedness Month, and my colleague, Jayne Madamba Speich, assistant director of online professional learning at the Center for Global Education, discusses ways to use global competence as a lens through which to teach students about disaster preparedness--and disaster prevention.

By guest blogger Jayne Madamba Speich

This September, across Texas, Florida, the Caribbean, and South Asia, great winds howled while all the rain in the world seemed to fall all at once and all in one place. Out west, a blistering sun turned the smoke-clogged dome of the sky into a blast furnace. The parched plains got no relief. And in Mexico, the earth shook, sending homes, buildings, and at least one school crashing down on people's heads.

Isn't it fitting, then, that September is National Preparedness Month?

Schools and disaster preparedness have been linked since the Cold War, when Bert the Turtle cheerfully induced school children to drop, duck, and cover should they ever see a big flash of white light. I am a Baby Boomer; I clearly remember, upon command of my teachers, dutifully dumping out of my chair and huddling under my desk, covering head and neck with clasped hands. After the all-clear, I sat back down and returned my attention to The New Math and my SRA color-coded reading program.

In school, we never talked about "duck and cover," whether it would save us, why we had to do it, or where and when the bomb would fall. We also never talked about what we could grow up and do to make the Cold War stop.

duck-and-cover.jpgSomething about this sort of disaster preparedness troubles me now. Preparedness is an important concept for students to grasp, and an important precaution against unexpected danger. But preparedness alone implies that we can't always anticipate and prevent a disaster. While it's true that some disasters don't lend themselves to prevention, it's also true that often we can do something preventive, if we are forward-thinking.

Global competence is all about helping students build the capacity to squarely face world problems that, left unaddressed, may one day lead to disaster.

The Cold War was such a problem: We ducked and covered because of a failure of world leadership and diplomacy.

Hurricanes are such a problem: the southeastern United States is suffering because of anthropogenic climate change compounded by human-made toxins leaching into the flood waters.

Even earthquakes are such a problem: We can't prevent the earth from shaking, but we can engineer and retrofit buildings to sustain life, and we can view human settlement patterns with wisdom and forethought.

In short, while schools should continue to prepare students for disaster, we should also help them think deeply about prevention. Here are some ideas and resources for integrating prevention with preparedness in the classroom.

Investigating the World. The first step in solving problems is understanding and acknowledging them. Children can learn about disasters that might occur in their own or other parts of the world, and also about ways to reduce the risks. The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) has a useful report on using disaster risk reduction (DRR) in education. The report describes ways that children can lead and benefit from DRR activities in a school setting. Children who learn about disaster tend to change their own behaviors to reduce the risk, and carry those behavioral changes home to their families and on into adulthood.

Recognizing Perspectives. Ideas, values, and beliefs powerfully influence human behaviors that can lead to disaster. For example, in India, open-fire stoves are traditionally used for cooking. They burn a mix of wood, hay, and cow dung; they contribute substantially to poor air quality and can be a human health hazard. To a Western child whose meals are cooked in the kitchen on an electric or gas-powered stove, the "solution" to this environmental problem might seem as simple as, "get a kitchen and buy a stove." Recognizing the perspectives of a different culture develops the capacity to invent true solutions without imposing a point of view.

Communicating Ideas. Preventing disaster requires change, and change is hard. Children can learn to be agents of change by developing ways to communicate persuasively and appropriately. Here is an excellent opportunity to learn how to create an infographic that conveys lots of information in a powerful visual; or to use investigative journalism to explain the facts about ocean warming and hurricanes; or to participate in a debate about the costs of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels.

Taking Action. Prevention is about forethought, planning, and follow-through, and of the three, follow-through is often the most difficult part of all. In a world where people, including children, can feel powerless to effect change, taking action is arguably the most important skill to develop. Disaster prevention is an excellent opportunity to help children develop the capacity to take even a small action, understanding how that action creates the conditions for a much larger change. Set a stretch goal for students when it comes to preventing disaster, and help them see how meeting that goal connects to a much larger outcome.

The United Nations has been thinking along the lines of pairing prevention education with preparedness education. In 2008, it released a consultation report, Disaster Prevention for Schools: Guidance for Education Sector Decision-Makers. The report inventories the impact of disaster on school buildings, teachers, and students and their families, and on learning itself. It places preparedness in the context of a full suite of disaster prevention and mitigation strategies, including knowledge, planning, and physical and environmental protection measures.

I invite you to think about how you are preparing children for disasters, and find some ways to engage them in prevention as well. May your teaching inspire your students to investigate the world, recognize perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action. May their learning help them take up their role as global citizens who can help solve the world's problems and make it a safer place.

Connect with the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image: U.S. government image in the public domain

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