I used to teach a class on designing for disaster response. Two weeks ago, I told my assistant principal I wanted to retire it.
The course, known as #Disastercamp, analyzes the social influences that transform natural hazards into “disasters” (like poverty, for instance) and examines the ways that social media is transforming disaster response (see #SandyAid as an example). Given that context, students propose new solutions for disaster response using social media and other tools.
After teaching it for the second time last spring, l began to think that the idea of disaster response was just too far beyond the experience of 16-year-olds in New York City to make sense as an entire class.
(A number of classes at the iSchool, particularly the courses we call “modules” that are grounded in real-life issues, are invented, redesigned, and retired every year. I’ve created and taught at least ten different classes since September 2010.)
But a week later, #Disastercamp is back. The conversations about resources, vulnerable communities and social media that #Disastercamp had in the classroom are happening on television. Crisis maps and hashtags have returned, and with them this question: How important is it that the things we do in our classrooms connect in some way with the things that happen outside of them?
That’s why, when the Department of Education last week encouraged teachers “to pick up where they left off in curriculum” on Monday, I thought of the lost opportunities for acknowledging that real life should trump our lesson plans. There’s so much to analyze: cartography, disaster risk and our ability to mitigate it, the fake disaster images circulating online, the power of crowdsourcing. Instead, in my classroom and in many others that were fortunate to survive unscathed, we had conversations about post-hurricane well-being and then we moved on to the regularly scheduled program.
As a teacher, that’s devastating. As a student, it must be baffling. I’m troubled by my own response to that, and am planning to propose a modified #Disastercamp class that investigates Hurricane Sandy in depth. But in schools where curriculum is not as flexible, where 16-year-olds struggle with reading and the January Regents exams are looming, the reality is that many teachers have to pretend that last week didn’t happen.
Classroom ecologies are not disconnected from the ways we live outside of them. The city is still broken, but thousands of classrooms are moving on.