How to teach tsunami to the young

As schools across the United States reconvened after the holiday break, teachers wondered how most appropriately to talk to their students about the tsunami that struck the Asian coastline Dec. 26. Once in the classroom, what many teachers found - even among children as young as 4 - was a driving curiosity about the event, joined with an eager desire to reach out to other children half a globe away.

In Philadelphia, Jeanne Bustard discovered that her prekindergartners at the Friends Select School focused first on the science and then on the people involved. "The first thing is interest in how it worked. It's distant to them, but they are fascinated with the size of the water or the idea that there are plates under the earth," says Ms. Bustard.

They also wanted to talk about the impact the tsunami would have on the faraway children. "The students have questions around families and loss," says Bustard. "It's a little less real for 4-year-olds, but they have the same concerns and interest as adults." Bustard was interested by what her young students didn't ask about. "They didn't ask what happened to their toys or other nonnecessities," she says. "Children have a good sense of the basic needs for living."

The science of earthquakes and tsunamis captured the imagination of students at all grade levels, even as some teachers struggled to keep the lessons age-appropriate and to be sensitive to fears the subject could arouse. At the Staten Island Academy, an independent school in New York, classes for seventh- and eighth-graders were more detailed, says Diane Hulse, head

of school. Their lessons included before and after images on the MSNBC website.

But their instructors also spent time discussing and dispelling rumors, such as the fear that a tidal wave could engulf New York City. To avoid frightening children in the lower grades, teachers in those classes talked about it only if the students asked.

As it turned out, the lower school had studied geology before Christmas vacation, and students were ready with their questions. "They knew what tsunamis were. They understood what journalists meant when they talked about the earth's crust," says Ms. Hulse.

Nationwide, teachers looked for ways to help make the tsunami less remote.

Lynn Fuller, who oversees the computer/technology lab at the Indian Camp School in Tulsa, Okla., directed her students to local news reports indicating that the precursor earthquakes had registered on the Geological Society of Oklahoma's equipment. This helped bring a sense of relevance to the students as they measured distances between their hometown and the disaster area.

Students at the International School of Louisiana in Baton Rouge were able to understand the tsunami by relating it to the hurricanes sometimes experienced in their part of the world.

The K-4 charter school adjusted its curriculum to address earthquakes and tsunamis, a slight modification as the third- and fourth-graders already were learning about the earth's crust.

"It provides an opportunity to make connections to the tragedy that happened," says Tom Crosby, head of school.

The students also have a global perspective that has piqued their interest and involvement. "There is a very strong sense of empathy as our focus is on global awareness and a lot of our faculty is from overseas," says Mr. Crosby.

In many classrooms, teachers found that students were quick to replace any fears of their own with a genuine concern for the plight of others.

Because their curriculum is science-focused, teachers at East Hartford/Glastonbury Elementary Magnet School, 40 miles from the Connecticut coast, planned to use the disaster as a teaching tool.

But Glen Peterson, the school's principal, quickly discovered that the connection his students made to reports of orphaned children and separated families was more powerful than interest in the science of the tsunami.

Personal fears were quickly surpassed by sympathy for young victims, says Mr. Peterson. "There have been some concerns, but they have been pretty minor. We gave the kids an opportunity to talk about it. Now the news about orphaned kids has hit home. These are thoughtful kids."

The president of the student council came to Peterson and asked if the students could do something. "Most of the time these things are initiated by me or another adult. It was heartwarming and powerful to see the kids initiate it," he says.

Fundraising efforts are underway at other schools as well, with some of the adults involved working to make the process meaningful for the students.

At the Friends Select School, a Quaker school, Bustard says even her 4-year-olds are routinely immersed in service to others. But raising money is a harder concept for them to understand, as opposed to a more concrete activity like donating a can of food or an article of warm clothing.

Students at the International School, however, quickly became enthusiastic fundraisers. When their teachers proposed giving up snacks for one day to donate the savings, they offered to forgo snacks for one full week.

Then with their teachers, they came up with a list of additional ways to raise money in the weeks to come, including one unique to their locale. In addition to reading books to adults and doing extra chores at home, they suggested the option of making a donation in exchange for being able to wear Mardi Gras clothes to school for a day.

Tsunami sources Contains an interactive map of the world's tectonic plates as well as a discussion on predicting earthquakes. Series of graphic images on how a tsunami is created and how to talk to children about the disaster. Activities and project ideas about earthquakes for kids. ngkids/9610/kwave/ Explanation of the tsunami geared just for kids. This site also includes a variety of related activities and projects. Meteorologist Crystal Wicker's website includes activities and discussions on all types of weather-related events including tsunamis.

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