‘Tis the season, for remembrance, humility and gratefulness. But the alarming images that we have all seen of people’s lives in disarray, possessions piled in heaps of debris and sand in front of what is left of their homes, belies something else. In the wake of Sandy, and the devastation it wrought on the metropolitan area, educators have a timely and compelling opportunity.

Sandy was the natural world speaking to us in no uncertain terms: The world’s climate is changing. The biosphere is ill. The ozone is wounded. The challenge and opportunity, in these STEM driven times, is how we as educators convert this tragic scenario into critical conversations for school-age children.

For one, we talk about it. To have ignored it, passed over because time out of school was lost and material needed to be covered, flies in the face of how children cope with stress and what we know of their interior lives. From a pedagogical vantage, such denial, attenuates the nations’ schools commitment to 21st century attributes: dealing with uncertainty, being empathetic, the awareness of contemporary events, the capacity to pose incisive questions and the ability to collectively and creatively problem solve. If ever was a time for the concept of global citizenship to take hold in a purposeful way, this is it.

Here is just a sample list of themes for further study:

  • Trees: The extent of the damage, what trees provide us with and projects involved in tree planting.
  • Animals: How do urban animals cope with storms? Where do they find refuge? Are their brains wired to know that a natural disaster imminent?
  • Floods and other natural disasters: Historical perspectives of other times and societies that suffered the wrath of the seas and the earth. How did communities respond and restore order?
  • Levies and sea walls: What is the physics and engineering behind them. Examples of projects where they were built. What would be required to do the same along the two rivers that surround New York?
  • Urban infrastructures: Tunnels, bridges, the electrical grid. How old is New York’s? What was involved in constructing it? What would be the benefits of a national effort to rebuild urban infrastructures?
  • Human consequences: The numbers who perished, lost homes, were without power. The emotional impact of surviving. How the city prepared and deployed its resources.
  • Government: What is the role of federal and state authorities in the wake of natural disaster? FEMA: What is it and how does it support people who have been victims of disasters?
  • Urban planning: What are the ways that the infrastructure can be strengthened? Do we have any precedents for this?
  • Disaster organizations involved in aiding people left homeless: Who are they? How do they work? What did they do after Sandy?
  • Involvement: Ways for students to become involved.

The list is as long and complex as the nature of a natural disaster.

As the world flattens, so does our proximity to all global occurrences. In our desire to cultivate responsive and civic minded learners, the tragedy of loss that our own neighbors or family members might have endured, presents real occasions for children to use their agency to make a difference. ‘Tis the season not to be jolly, but to help our children become critically aware and socially and emotionally responsive.

No standardized test can measure the efficacy or urgency of this. Only a widening ethic of care that our children need to bear for each other and the at risk natural world they have inherited.

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. Most recently he headed Stevens Cooperative School as an interim, and prior to that he was head of school at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona and head of studies at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.

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