When natural disasters strike, they can leave an entire country – world, even – reeling. Teachers and students can sense the palpable feelings of anxiety, apprehension, and insecurity in the classroom. While these events can rock us to our core, students need teachers to provide a safe place to discuss what’s happening, to deal with emotions, and to be an inspiration for how people can do their part to lead where they are. We can help students cope with natural disasters and other emergencies.
Everyone has heard of Hurricanes Andrew, Sandy, Katrina, Harvey, and Irma and the tremendous damage they caused in the United States. Tragedies like hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanos, tsunamis, and earthquakes are unsettling. People want to help, but not everyone is able to be physically present. Students, especially, need to know that they can make a difference in the lives of the victims of a natural disaster without traveling to the wreckage site. Teachers can bring that awareness.
In this post, a group of compassionate educators has put together specific ideas for how educators can communicate reassurance with students and allow them outlets of expression.
5 Ways to Help Students Cope with Natural Disasters
1. MODEL EMPATHY & COMPASSION
In one of my favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch famously tells his daughter “‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As an English teacher, literature gives me opportunities to teach about empathy and compassion. However, over the years, I’ve realized that I can often best teach these lessons through personal example.
Whether it’s fundraising for victims of a natural disaster, advocating for homeless and abused animals, or supporting a local family in crises, I hope that my students will witness (and join me) in caring for others. No doubt, I love teaching my content- I want students to be critical readers and writers. But ultimately, the true measure of my success is whether I can inspire my students to be kind and compassionate human beings. ~ Kim @OCBeachTeacher
2. USE LITERATURE TO GUIDE DISCUSSIONS
Natural disasters dominate news cycles for a few days or weeks, but after the media coverage ends, the real work of recovery begins. Destruction is incomprehensible, needs are desperate, and crises are overwhelming. Students both near and far to the disaster need support.
Books are both a timely and timeless tool to help students process, cope, empathize, manage their anxiety, alleviate their fears, and heal. The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck is a quick read-aloud with simple language but sophisticated ideas. It’s especially meaningful when helping students talk about disasters that result in painful losses, geographical moves, or death. I appreciate the hopefulness in the midst of tragedy portrayed in this poignant story.
Other helpful books include:
Flood by Villa F. Alvaro (a wordless picture book appropriate for all grades)
What to Do When You’re Scared and Worried by James J. Crist (Grades 5-8)
Jenny is Scared: When Sad Things Happen in the World by Carol Shuman (K-2)
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes (K-2)
What Happened to MY World? by Jim Greenman (a resource for teachers and parents)
3. GIVE GIFTS TO SHOW SUPPORT
Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest difference. As a hurricane survivor, I have witnessed first-hand the effect that receiving a few small items has on someone who has lost everything. This charitable activity is designed to instill a spirit of giving and empathy.
First, I ask my students to brainstorm ideas of what could fit in a shoebox that would make life easier for someone who has lost everything. Because students are all so tech-centered, this activity requires them to think outside the box (no pun intended).
After they have developed their list, we begin collecting as many of the items as we can. This often requires me to make several trips to The Dollar Store. My students each assemble and decorate a box with items they bring in along with the ones I contribute.
Finally, they each write a letter to include in their box identifying themselves only by first name. These letters offer words of encouragement and hope. A shoebox with supplies, a book to read, toiletries, a kind word in a letter from a child.
These are the small things that make a huge difference. As teachers, we must show our students the importance of helping those in need. I know that if I can do this, I will consider my career a success. ~ Write On with Jamie
4. WRITE TO PROCESS EMOTIONS
Stuffing emotions—even in the classroom—can lead to health problems for our students (and their teachers!). Simple, guided, no-stakes freewrite exercises can give us an outlet for fear, anger, and hurt.
Here’s how it works: Explain to students that they have two minutes to write as much as they can as quickly as they can on the topic you will give them. I teach high school English, so I often begin with a softball issue they care about: HOMEWORK.
As soon as I say the word, they write. We share, laugh, complain, and move to the next word. When we get to the heavy stuff, the rules change a bit, and by the last exercise, they know that no other human being will ever read the words on that page.
They can write whatever they want using the language they want . . . and then they can rip it up. ~ Angie Kratzer
5. RESEARCH TO BRING AWARENESS
Many students are unaware of previous natural disasters when they are in the middle of a current one. In the past, I’ve found it helpful to discuss tragedies from recent history, to have students conduct some research as a healthy outlet for their interests, and to help them understand how we can come together for the greater good, emerging stronger than we were before.
Through informal research activities, students can learn about relief efforts, ways they can lead where they are (even if they can’t physically be present to help), and how to show neighborly love for the victims of a natural disaster.
When students’ minds are distracted from the regular lesson, it’s a good idea to shift gears and capitalize on the teachable moments that arise. After all, being sensitive to students’ concerns and teaching them to be compassionate and resilient citizens is more important than sticking unwaveringly to the day’s lesson plan. ~ Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven