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How a Natural Disaster Changed My Back to School Plans

Earthquake-damaged school

You can use natural disasters and other mother-nature events as learning experiences in the classroom.

On my last day of teaching summer school, my mind was already filled with thoughts about going back to school and the academic year ahead. I had all my plans laid out, and everything was prepped for the first day. But Mother Nature had other plans for my class, and it ended up being a wonderful learning experience for me and my students.

An Unexpected Event

On our last day of summer school, we went to take our students to the basement to watch a movie. It seemed like the best way to say goodbye to summer. About halfway through the cartoon hilarity, there was a loud noise, like a train pulling into a station. Most of the children didn't even look up, but a little boy next to me patted my arm and asked innocently, "Was that an earthquake?" The eastern North American city where we live isn't prone to earthquakes—in fact, I'd never experienced one—so I shook my head and told him it was probably a loud truck or a bus passing by the school. Then the entire floor beneath us lurched slightly sideways, and I started to change my mind!

Earthquakes are so uncommon in my town, we didn't even have an official protocol for dealing with them. Thankfully, instinct took over, and we ushered all the children underneath large lunch tables to wait until it stopped. None of us could believe what had just happened, but with the start of incessant pings and updates on our devices, we quickly realized that we had indeed just experienced an earthquake. It turned out to measure a 5.2 on the Richter scale. For a city that's not used to such seismic activity, this was quite the event and quickly became all anyone was talking about.

Navigating the Aftermath

The next day, which was the first day of the regular school year, I had to contend with two pressing issues. The first was that my classroom, while not completely destroyed, had been disturbed. Everything that I'd neatly set up the day before had been shuffled around quite a bit, and the room needed a good tidying and dusting.

But more importantly, my students were distracted by sharing news of having lived through an earthquake and were totally uninterested in all the activities I had planned. My meticulously researched and crafted lessons on the "ch" blend in our phonics hour, symmetry in math class, and the germination of seeds in science class couldn't engage my students when they only wanted to talk about the biggest thing that ever happened in their young lives—and can you blame them?

Sometimes teachers are so anxious to get through their planned scheme of work that they forget there's a whole world of experience and natural learning to take advantage of. I, for one, love to fill the first day of school with a purpose, and the thought of casting everything I'd planned aside was a little nerve-racking. But I realized I would have been stamping out the children's natural curiosity if I simply forged ahead with my planned work. Ignoring the rest of the world and children's lived experiences robs them of experiential learning and being able to connect their own lives to abstract thought and scientific concepts.

Capitalizing on Real-World Inspiration

I put my plans aside and focused all of the day's activities around the earthquake. First, we raided the library for books and resources on earthquakes. Then we created a giant collaborative piece of artwork based on the children's experiences. The earthquake artwork spanned a 20-foot roll of canvas. Each child sat at their own spot and, using oil paints, created their own interpretation of the way the earth had moved. Instinctively, the students blended brown and gray shades to depict the earth and the buildings, with a few adding an imaginative shot of red. We wrapped the canvas around the walls of the corner classroom, and it stayed up until Halloween!

Expanding on using a creative outlet to process our combined experience, the students completed a journaling activity about their firsthand recollections. I simply prompted them with "Yesterday...," and not one student mentioned anything other than the earthquake in their journal.

These activities were not "busy work." In fact, they significantly altered the term's science plans! My co-teacher and I decided to move the units around so we could take some initial online research on earthquakes and tectonic plates, and extend it into an earthquake project. The students were engaged, energized, and excited to learn. This could have been attributed simply to the excitement of the previous day's events, but over the next few weeks, we found that giving students work that had a practical basis in their own lives was approached with purpose and keen interest.

Sometimes that first day back to school is a lost day of learning, filled with introductions, going over rules and regulations, and completing school admin tasks. But for me, the educational impact of our first day was at least a 5.2 on the learning Richter scale!