Island Forum | Educator reflects on 2008 China and Haiti earthquakes

As I write this, thousands of young bodies have been pulled from schools collapsed in the Haitian earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010. Thousands of miles away, Chinese teachers and parents are reliving the devastating earthquake of May 12, 2008.

So many missing students and so many of their teachers — gone — these stewards of our future who have recognized what engineers have warned all along: the real tragedy of earthquakes comes from structures themselves. In scientific terms, geology teachers describe this as a shallow earthquake, the worst kind for so many regions of the world populated by throngs of people living in flimsy buildings. In a larger sense, we are all reminded again that teachers — ears to the ground — understand the cataclysm that has always rumbled just below the surface. In Haiti, we have been reminded once again that a durable society must be built upon both strong building codes and reinforced educational pillars.

Allow me to connect the two. In 2006, my organization — Teachers Without Borders — initiated a professional development program focusing on science-inquiry methods in Sichuan, China. The program was collaborative. We all developed deep friendships. It was hands-on and in-depth. In 2007, we explored deeper concepts. Many principals joined the sessions. An insightful local leader began to think about the applications of science and the schools themselves.

He didn’t have enough time. The epicenter of the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan was identified as Wenchuan, not far from Dujiangyan, the site of our operations. In all, over 70,000 died, many of whom were children.

Driving to work and hearing the news, I was overcome by nausea and pulled over to the side of the road. I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. These were my brothers and sisters, my friends, our teachers. The grief moved from my stomach to my heart to my head, and then to my hands. We got to work — adding limited resources to the relief effort. But we were educators, after all. What value could we bring outside of charity bake sales?

I flew out to Sichuan and sat with teachers, many of whom had lost their own (and only) children. We watched the army work in 24-hour shifts, heroic and indefatigable. Everywhere we walked, we witnessed the rubble of schools collapsed around stairwells or makeshift shrines constructed of canvas over rubble and sticks, protecting shelves of student pictures. And in front of each shrine — a pile of lonely backpacks — the litter of the lost. One teacher, who lost his own daughter in the disaster, said: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

Shortly afterwards, one of our Teachers Without Borders members, Solmaz Mohadjer, came forward, having recently completed earthquake safety programs in Tajikistan and Kashmir. We alerted a group of Chinese-speaking members at Cisco Systems and, within days, her curriculum was translated.

Several months later, along with Chinese teachers, geologists and school administrators, Ms. Mohadjer explored earthquakes from a geological and structural perspective, informed by accurate science. Groups of teachers gathered around shake tables, using hands-on science methods, stretching springs and building model structures with popsicle sticks. They learned how to create lessons around structural integrity; when to gather under one’s desk or escape the building; how to prepare for the future. They crossed out inaccurate data about their escape plans and substituted more accurate versions. Science became the key to safety (physical and emotional). Along the way, they learned the art and craft of their profession. They are building educational pillars. Understood by local officials, earthquake science programs such as ours have been embraced by the Chinese as a model connecting science to survival.

Chinese teachers feel the pain, now, as do teachers the world over. They know that recovery and relief have been the priority in these crucial days following the quake. They know now that, worldwide, earthquake fault lines are clearly defined, though the earthquakes themselves have yet to be predicted. Might we not take this lesson to heart? Might we not prepare our children with both earthquake science and pay attention to the teaching profession for its role as the glue of a society, the consistent first responders, the multipliers of stability?

Chinese teachers send their love and shared sorrow to Haiti — today in spirit, tomorrow as colleagues, forever as friends. They long to lend a hand during this horrific time. In fact, they — like teachers around the world — have been there all along.

Islander Dr. Fred Mednick is the founder of Teachers without Borders. Go to www.TeachersWithoutBorders.org for information and to find “Earthquake Education Curriculum: A Teacher’s Guide to Earthquake Science & Safety” (free).

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