How a Hurricane Redefined Global Citizenship For Our School

Personalized Learning

How a Hurricane Redefined Global Citizenship For Our School

By Kristin Cornwell     Sep 27, 2017

How a Hurricane Redefined Global Citizenship For Our School

Even before it began, my school knew this year would be different.

This marks my 12th year of teaching and my third at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in Houston, a public charter school in a predominately Hispanic community. After receiving a Verizon grant earlier this year, our school was planning on introducing one-to-one iPads for students and differentiated professional development for our staff. We also began to seriously think about how to prioritize global citizenship as a core belief in our curriculum and our school vision.

Everyone at YES Prep knew our year would be filled with a lot of new: New staff (a third of our teachers this year are new to teaching), new ways of teaching and learning with technology, new ways of opening the world to our students as global citizens and empowering them to own their learning.

What we didn’t foresee was Hurricane Harvey, a tragedy that turned the eyes of the world on our city, caused untold destruction and yet, through the chaos, provided our school community with a new perspective on what it means to really personalize learning and create global citizens.

A Hurricane Hits

In mid August, with word that Hurricane Harvey was imminently going to strike, our school was closed the Friday of our second week into the school year and remained closed for the following two weeks. Harvey was my first hurricane to experience, and I never could have anticipated the tragedy that unfolded.

The world sat in homes and offices glued to the news coverage while the flood waters rose, watching incredible stories of both daring rescues and the heartbreak of losing everything. Here at home we saw the world link arms with Houston.

There was an outpouring of generosity as our community gathered and donated supplies and Houstonians from all over opened their homes to strangers. Others drove in from out of state just because they had a boat and knew they could help with rescues. After the storm, the city pulled together, gutting and cleaning out damaged homes by dragging everything to the curb. Classroom teachers from other states reached out to adopt Houston classrooms, that would need all the help they could get.

In the end, there were countless ways that humans simply loved other humans in their time of need. There was beauty amidst chaos and destruction.

While it seemed that all the adults in the world were in a flutter, figuring out the best ways to help, support and give, we seemingly lost track of the fact that our children, our students, were watching this disaster (and our actions) unfold too—and they were feeling it in very personal ways. Whether our students lost all they had or simply lived through the hurricane, we are all dealing with trauma on some level. Pre-Harvey, our staff had been so focused on the idea of global citizenship, but through such a limited lens.

Pulling Together

What we ended up realizing was that adults don’t have to be the ones empowering students to be global citizens. They are empowering themselves. This eye-opening moment came to us when one of our colleagues happened to see a news segment while we were still out of school. It featured one of our own eighth-grade students, a boy named Valentin Espinoza.

When Valentin and his young friends saw the great need in their community, they didn’t hesitate to take action. They created a lemonade stand that initially raised $400 in the first two days and donated all the money to flood survivors. An anonymous man drove by and saw what they were doing and wrote them a check on the spot for $10,000.

Valentin was just as shocked as you are reading that number. He thought, “Maybe he’s going to write us a check for $100, and that would be good. But then we saw it was written for $10,000!”

Later, Valentin put it best when he said: “Maybe I’m too young to go rescue someone, but if you really want to help, you can find a way.”

Valentin’s actions resonated with us and provided a window into how our students were feeling. Once we re-grouped as a staff, we realized this disaster seemingly tore apart all of our preconceived notions about how to engage our students with the world around them.

During and after the tragedy, personalized learning took on a new meaning. The learning, the giving and the engagement was now especially personal because we were all affected by this storm. What students want to learn about and explore might vary widely, but there is an eagerness to take these personalized learning paths. Our teachers get to be facilitators, not gatekeepers of information along the way. Our students will teach us just as much as we hope to teach them.

Being kids who lived through Harvey created in them a sense of global citizenship that now connects them to those affected by flooding in Florida, the Caribbean and all the way across the world to South Asia. Our students have a deep empathy and an incredible urge to find ways to contribute to the world around them. They want to learn, connect and make a difference.

Finding a Way to Give

Thankfully, our campus was not damaged, and most of our students’ homes experienced minimal damage, if any. Students were eager to return to school after two weeks off. During the first few weeks back, our homeroom teachers have spent time conversing with students about the storm. We talk about the effects, their feelings and how students personally and collectively want to connect to the community and the world around them.

Each class came up with its own unique way of contributing. Some wanted to send kind notes to students in schools affected by Hurricane Irma. Others began gathering canned food to send, or collecting their own clothes to give to those in need. One class suggested hosting a school dance and having a bake-sale where all the proceeds would go to those still in need of assistance. The ideas just keep pouring out of these students, who in the eyes of the world, based on their economic status, seem to have very little to give. But their hearts are determined to find a way.

So where do we go from here? Our journey for the rest of this year and the years ahead is still very uncertain. Our iPad rollout was pushed back and is still a few weeks away. The endless possibilities for where this experience will lead us leaves us guessing, stirs some anxiety and creates passion.

All the “new” challenges I mentioned earlier have not gone away. But we’ve also added a new perspective: A feeling of empowerment to connect and engage with the world around us in order to be positive contributors, both in personal and collective ways.

Kristin Cornwell is a sixth-grade Humanities teacher at YES Prep Northbrook Middle School in Houston.

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