Fourteen years ago when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the current eighth graders were just infants, with no understanding of the chaos and destruction taking place around them. In 2016, these same students endured the Baton Rouge flood and now have a more personal understanding of what a natural disaster can do. This semester, the students delved deeper into the topic as they asked themselves the question - What are resident’s energy needs after a natural disaster?
The eighth grade teachers, including Shyamala Alapati, Rebecca Milligan, James Moroney and Kristina St. George, teamed up with Librarian Tiffany Whitehead and Academic Technology Coordinator Betsy Minton for this cross-curricular, project-based lesson. In addition to exploring the topic of energy needs, the team also incorporated the theme of this year’s Quest for Peace Program – Finding a Place in a Displaced World. The teachers found creative ways in which to incorporate the theme into a variety of lessons. In geography class, as students studied the countries of the world they learned about the energy challenges and needs of that country’s citizens. In science class, students learned about the different types of energy and how they are created. The theme of energy was even studied in English, where teacher Rebecca Milligan introduced literature written about hurricanes Harvey, Katrina and Maria. Milligan says the text focused on the challenges and emotions that coincide with displacement in the midst of these natural disasters. While you might think it’s a challenge to teach students about energy in English class, Milligan says it’s rewarding to find text that is relevant and applicable to current events, while still teaching students the required academic components.
The eighth grade team invited guest speakers with personal and powerful connections to natural disasters to speak with students. Middle School Spanish teacher Giselle Clouatre, who is originally from Puerto Rico, spoke with students about the challenges her own family faced after Hurricane Maria. Her story was real and relatable for the students who are growing up in a state often impacted by hurricanes. “I think seeing a teacher we see almost every day talking about such a horrible experience changed my view on disasters and the lives of the people that experience them,” said Sacha Dernoncourt. “Ms. Clouatre told us about things that happened in her real life, which I think is a lot more helpful when we’re learning because it’s easier to understand and actually comprehend what someone has gone through when you actually know them,” said Haley Wright.
Episcopal graduate and Cajun Army founder, Chris King ’88 discussed the challenges of responding to a natural disaster. He related stories of 11 hour boat rescues and volunteers working tirelessly to organize thousands of meals for displaced residents in the aftermath of the 2016 flood. He challenged students to be the next group of innovators to think of solutions to help citizens fare better in the next natural disaster. What are you going to create? How can you help?
Bringing the Lesson to Life
Students recently had the opportunity to connect everything they’ve learned. While sixth and seventh grade students were testing, eighth grade students were fully immersed in the concepts they had spent so long studying. Students explored multiple ways to create energy. They used potatoes, wind, water and a hand crank to light a tiny LED bulb. Outside of the library, students tried a variety of methods for lighting fire, including magnifying glasses, flint and friction. With each method students saw results, ranging from a wisp of smoke to tiny flames. The reward for their efforts was roasting s’mores over a fire pit. Inside the library, students were tasked with solving a series of disaster-related puzzles to unlock an escape box to gain access to the prize within. As a reminder of the impact a natural disaster can have and to truly reinforce the day’s theme, students watched the documentary Hurricane on the Bayou in St. George’s classroom. All of the activities were engaging and entertaining for students. Milligan says the hope is that the experience helps students make a connection between the impacts a natural disaster can have, such as loss of energy, and how citizens can be displaced as a result.
This is Project-Based Learning in Middle School.
Most of the Episcopal community is familiar with a project-based learning unit. Students explore all aspects of a topic, they make connections about the topic, investigate and research it and eventually share what they have learned. The projects are cross-curricular and include everything from guest speakers and field trips, to hands-on activities designed to generate excitement and enthusiasm for the topic. This year, Middle School teachers worked toward the goal of organizing such a project and the eighth grade energy and displacement project was a success. “I am so impressed with our 8th grade teachers’ work together to support their students with project work focused on energy,” says Middle School Division Head Lucy Smith. “Our students have had a great opportunity to increase their awareness of and empathy for the energy challenges that arise when natural disasters occur. We hope their work on the project will motivate their ideas and leadership for problem-solving in the future.”
Students were, in fact, inspired to take action as a result of the lesson. After learning more about the challenges of natural disasters, they elected to create natural disaster kits in preparation for future events. St. George says students took on leadership roles, with a disaster kit lead designated in each homeroom. She says the student leaders encouraged their peers to donate items on the disaster kit list and an eighth grader even designed the flyer used to promote the effort. With student donations and the $256 generated from eighth grade field day concession sales, 11 complete disaster kits were created. St. George says the kits will be given to Catholic Charities for deployment during the next disaster.
While the eighth grade field day activity was certainly fun and engaging for students, the lesson had a larger purpose and impact. The teaching team is hopeful that the students make a connection between their classroom lessons and the real life applications – after all, isn’t that what learning is all about?