Being a teacher during a disaster

japanThe recent tragic events in Japan have brought back memories of the 2005 tsunami when I was teaching grade 4 at Rose Ave. P.S. in Toronto. I’ve previously written about this multicultural school and the impact it had on my own teacher development.

The tsunami in 2005 hit our school hard. We had a large Sri Lankan student body and in my own class, had 2 students who lost family. It was a month or more of chaos where regular classes really didn’t happen and there was lots of counseling for both teachers and students in the school.

I had daily carpet talks with the students. What was most important to them were two things I feel;

1. Telling their own story.
Who they knew, what they’d heard and happened. My role as a teacher was to direct this conversation. Let them get it out and turn the conversation into a learning moment.

2. Knowledge. What was a tsunami? What really happened to the people? Why some places were destroyed, others not? So many questions. My job was to prepare materials and answers – to give students access to knowledge about these events. Knowledge IS control and that is so important at a time like this.

That year in our lonely, hot/cold, stuffy, crowded, noisy, dark portable was a turning year for me. I learned a lot about students and gave myself the time to reflect and think about students and what they need for their development. It was even more formative because of the 2005 tsunami, the pain and struggle we all felt. Out of suffering eventually does come something worthy. Our teaching, teaches us who we are.

Teachers have to give students knowledge after a tragedy like Japan. It is an important role. Twitter, FB etc… have really helped many teachers do this, this time around. In 2005, I was pretty well all alone and relied on newspapers and the librarian.

Larry Ferlazzo, Shelly Terrell, many others – tweeted about the events in Japan and gave educators access to information that they could process and prepare for their student’s questions on Monday. It was invaluable. I also did through my own tweets.

However, there were a few people on the internet – who didn’t get it.

I was disgusted and shocked by those who condemned great teachers, helping other great teachers through twitter and social media. Put off by their tweets and off hand moralizing. I collected a record and you can view the tweets below. (I have removed the individual tweets. For reasons that support the people involved to control their own content online and also because of the discussion and clarification that ensued).

Essentially, they saw teachers tweeting / RTing anything about resources, the morning of the tsunami/quake as “immoral” and “pornographers”. I vehemently disagree and throw it back at them. It is imperative that teachers get information about events, about materials they can use with their students. I’ll leave it at that. It’s not easy being a teacher during a disaster. Especially one who shares resources and ideas online….

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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17 Responses

  1. Nergiz Kern says:

    Hi David,

    This is a very interesting and important topic. I’ve been thinking about it myself for some time. Sometimes, when I see such “disaster lessons plans” or resources shared or join in the sharing myself, I also ask myself whether this is ethical (including my own behaviour). It looks like these people are trying to get attention or make money from a disaster. So, I can understand where Richard is coming from.

    On the other hand, I myself regularly include current topics in my lessons because I think it is important for students to know what is going on in the world and to allow students to talk about their feelings. So, I appreciate when colleagues post resources. So, I can also understand this side and I can understand why you are so angry.

    I’m just a bit sad that this has taken on such an aggressive tone because I really believe this topic is worth discussing.


  2. Hi David,

    Wow! Thanks for posting this. I missed these tweets.

    I totally agree with you regarding the need for people to talk about disasters. I was in the centre of Kobe during the 1995 earthquake. In the days after the quake before authorities closed our school for safety reasons, the quake was pretty much the only topic of conversation. I can’t recall teachers making lessons on it.

    From looking at the tweets above, I guess I’m a serial macabre pornographer (will ask Richard about this). I have made BreakingNewsEnglish lessons on Katrina, the Pakistan and Haiti quakes, the Pakistan floods and countless other disasters. In my six years of making these lessons, no one has ever suggested I’m macabre. The only feedback has been thanks for so quickly making the news so accessible for lower level learners.

    I started my site because news was what students wanted to talk about. I wanted to fill the gap coursebooks couldn’t. I also wanted to address the taboo topics that coursebooks would never touch.

    I’m surprised at Luke Meddings’ comment: “I think,if the conversation happens,let it happen.Ask if anyone’s seen the news,ok.But no need to knock up a disaster lesson plan.”

    Personally, I don’t “knock up” disaster lessons. All of the 1,577 news lessons I have uploaded in the past 6 years have been carefully thought out. I think very carefully about the appropriacy of the content and what I write.

    Having lived in Japan for 13 years and married to a Japanese lady, I would never do anything “macabre” to a country I absolutely love.

    I will continue to write and upload lessons on news of disasters.

  3. ddeubel says:


    You put the dilema in perspective. I really do see the other side of the coin. I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t carte blanche accuse teachers with sincere intentions of wanting attention or worse. But it is a dilema and point taken.


    Thanks for commenting. Your experience and perspective is invaluable. I do think teachers are and should be like journalists. I don’t see why we can’t tweet without ill feelings, useful resources – when at the same time, the news networks are doing the same thing. It is all public education.

    And you are right – it is good to speak about these things and not hide away from the tragedy. I really believe so.

  4. Ceri says:

    This is such a sensitive, emotive topic, and I can see both sides of the story. I think we all recoil from the “gawping at the scene of the accident” phenomenon. And we all feel the deepest respect for people’s private pain in such a public tragedy. But I think we also all see the need to talk and not to side-step issues.

    As a parent I feel the need to be there to try to explain and answer questions and address fears when my kids want to know what happened and why and can it happen to them. We live in an area that suffered damage from a tsunami a long, long time ago, but it’s in the folklore of the town, in the psyche of the community still. My kids’ primary school teacher explained the mechanics of earthquakes and tidal waves to the kids in class yesterday. We needed to continue that conversation at home.

    I was teaching in Madrid at the time of the Atocha train bombings. Everybody was affected. We all knew someone who had lost a friend, a relative, a partner. We lost students. There was a very human need to be able to talk about it in class, as well as outside. It would have been so false to close the classroom door and leave that reality outside. It was something we all had to deal with, inside and outside the class. No, we didn’t prepare lessons, we listened and shared our stories. But I can see that in some classes, sensitively-prepared materials might be appropriate.
    I guess what I’m saying is I can see both sides of the story. And I echo Nergiz’s feeling that it’s a shame that people whose values and judgments I respect so highly have seemingly clashed in this way.

  5. Richard says:

    Well this ruined my bus-back-home reflections on my Spanish class.

    I believe there are a number of areas where some explanation and a are response necessary and however long this comment becomes, I feel that it needs to be here on this blog as a response to the post written above. This response is made extremely necessary due to the fact that a blog post is permanent, in readers’ memories and however long the author decides to leave it visible. As a result, this post, which feels to me like a personal attack both on myself and the other tweeters in the images above, has the potential to be quite damaging to the perception that other PLN members have of us, though perhaps myself in particular, as the images make it clear that I wrote the initial tweet in the discussion. Currently, I feel both angered and anxious about this situation and if the intention of the blog post was to make me feel a little distressed and perhaps damage my reputation amongst other members of our PLN then I can only congratulate the writer. If David has felt distressed due to believing the tweets were an attack on him then I can only apologise, but there was never any intention, as I intend to explain. Ceri wrote above that we have ‘seemingly clashed’, yet there was no personal attack on my part.

    This situation is, however, is a real opportunity to reflect not only of the permanence of online social interaction, but also on the clarity of a message contained within 140 characters. It is ironic that until I was made aware of this post I had not seen any tweet by David about the situation in Japan at all. It is clear, then, that he perceived the tweets in the exchange displayed above as a personal attack on him, which is obviously not the case. As is clear from the images, no individual was named in any of my tweets. I have also noted that this blog itself contains no mention of Japan other than in this post and that David was not posting about links to images or videos of the disaster but tweeting. In my tweet, I mentioned blogs, not tweets. It is not something that I actually considered at the time, but to me, re-tweeting information about such a disaster feels more like sharing, whereas a blog has a greater element of self-promotion. David’s tweets shown above display general links to potential educational resources, which can benefit teachers confronted with a class who wish to understand more about the occurrence. Those resources seem useful for aiding an explanation in such a case.

    The context of the tweets is also relevant. I was sitting at my parent’s house after family party watching the TV and a group of us were commenting on how unnecessary the constant loop of harrowing images actually was. We saw a video made by people at the airport in Sendai (I think) and there were screams, shouts and obvious fear. Watching this did not make me feel comfortable, because I felt for these people and also because I couldn’t see how these sounds were really needed. Furthermore, how necessary is it to witness a dead body in a plastic bag being carried out of a partially collapsed building? It is in this context of a discussion regarding the need for these visual images that I checked my email and google reader showed a couple of blog posts offering (advertising?) links to images and videos of the disaster. To me, at that moment, it felt extremely distasteful for someone to be acting like TV media and focusing on such disturbing images, because, as I said, there is surely something quite self-promotional about blogs, it’s not all about caring and sharing. I would have to disagree if somebody states that they blog purely out of altruism. As for Sean and his website, then I would say that as he produces resources especially for the teaching of current news, then it would seem strange for him not to produce lessons on disasters. The point is that Sean’s lessons are not (as far as I am aware) based on images or videos. Suggesting that Sean’s lessons are in any way ‘disaster p**n’ would be like arguing that sex education is titillating, ridiculous, though I’m sure there are some people somewhere who would.

    The tweet above in which I reply to Luke Meddings was in response to a tweet stating that “I think, if the conversation happens, let it happen. Ask if anyone’s seen the news, ok. But no need to knock up a disaster lesson plan.” A point with which I agreed, as can be seen above. Responding to students needs is a perfectly justifiable reason for engaging in educational talk about disasters, but planning lessons around disturbing videos (though I didn’t notice anyone anywhere doing this) would perhaps not be acceptable.

    I can fully understand that it is necessary to talk about disasters like these, particularly where teaching younger learners is concerned. In this case the students need to be helped in their efforts to make sense of the world around them, although, I can see little need for the in-depth ‘carpet talks’ mentioned above unless the group is directly affected by the incident. David also mentions that teachers need to share with students, ok, but do their teachers really need tweeters and bloggers to guide their poor, ignorant minds to the jewels of educational resources? It’s not hard to look for news stories on the BBC, Sky News or CNN, is it? If one’s blog is a business generating money form advertising, then the sharing of links is done in order to popularise their blog, which has the potential therefore to generate income. As you have said, perhaps it is “not easy being a teacher during a disaster. Especially one who shares resources and ideas online”, as there is a fine line between altruistic sharing and marketing. I am not saying bloggers in this situation are automatically wrong, but they should be aware how their actions maybe be interpreted by others.

    An addition…

    The paragraph above using the term ‘Speissberger’, I find abusive in the extreme. You are essentially comparing a group of us to the powerbrokers who created a Nazi Germany. I think that a little perspective and restraint may have been required. I had finished this comment, but returned to check the article one more time. On re-reading this paragraph I was angered, having perhaps not really taken in the power of the author’s intended meaning. I take great exception to the inference in this paragraph and I would like to think, David, that reflecting on this may initiate a reaction on your part.

    A PLN is like a giant staffroom. Had this situation occurred in a staffroom the verbal nature of the discussion would have allowed for the softening of opinions and greater clarity in articulation. Unfortunately the nature of written discourse does not allow for these affordances. I feel that perhaps there has been a misunderstanding here, due to a misperception of what has been said, though perhaps you still think that I’m a ‘Speissburger’.

    Btw, I have edited the word ‘p**n’ above as I was prohibited from posting this comment with that word.

  6. Peter says:

    Clearly some very strong feelings here – hardly surprising given the scale of the tragedy in Japan. Like Sean, I have very close family links to Japan. I cannot imagine, as those awful scenes were unfolding, wanting to walk into a multi-cultural classroom here in Brighton with Japanese students in attendance, and running through my downloaded lesson plan and resources on earthquakes. I can only think that treating the topic as a “teaching point” might well be considered to be insensitive in the extreme, at that point and on that morning. No more than I would have thought of delivering a lesson plan on “Terrorist Atrocities” the day after the twin towers were brought down.

    Of course the question comes up in the lesson and of course students will be concerned about the situation and it is totally right that they have the opportunity to express how they feel and share stories – but that is different to directing their attention to it.

    There is nothing wrong in dealing with current, interesting and sometimes uncomfortable topics in the classroom BUT it does not strike me as respectful to use this for language teaching while the bodies are still being pulled out of the rubble.

  7. Fiona says:

    I was surprised when someone drew my attention to my ‘appearance’ in your blog. Particularly having wildly retweeted information, links etc re the earthquake from about 55 minutes after it happened. You see, I did ‘get it’. However. It seems that what caught your attention was my agreeing with Richard’s word ‘macabre’ (not ‘disaster p***’, let me make that clear here and now, but in 140 characters …) referring to lesson plans on the subject, BUT bear in mind I was not expressing an opinion of any particular blog post or of tweets sending out information about the earthquake, tsunami, reactors, or helplines for non-Japanese speakers in Japan, tweets like yours above (all for resources other than lesson plans, as far as I can see).

    It was a gut reaction to hearing about lesson plans so soon. Yes, there are people who would plan a lesson to inform, help, discuss, support etc. but there are also people out there who would do it because the topic is ‘hot’. I’m not referring to anyone in particular, but I’ve been in teaching for long enough to know that it happens. As it is, I haven’t read any lesson plans and was reacting to the idea, not to any specific blog post.

    Also, to express surprise that Luke said if the topic emerged he would go with it, but otherwise he wouldn’t plan it – or to be surprised that I agree with him – is actually surprising in itself. As long-standing (and in Luke’s case, founding) members of the dogme group, to suggest we would plan a class on this topic or any other would go against our entire teaching philosophy. Like Luke, if the students want to talk about it, that’s what we do in my classes – not if I want to talk about it. I may walk into class knowing we’ll be focussing on vocab and writing or speaking and listening or whatever, but the topic will come from the students. I’ve taught through many a tragedy, whether at international level like tsunami, civil war, invasion or genocides, the bombs in Madrid and London, or at student’s personal level – miscarriages, sibling’s deaths, car crashes, AIDS, climbing accidents, terrorist attacks, amputation…. But I’ve only ever dealt with them in class if students want to, if they are the ones who bring that particular plan to class.

    I agree with Ceri that there is a distrust of ‘gawping at the scene of the accident’ but that talking about these topics helps, but whether you, as a teacher, choose to go into class having planned to teach/deal with this topic or whether, as a teacher, you choose to wait and see if the learners bring that plan with them and deal with it if it ’emerges’ ……..well, neither of those approaches is necessarily wrong or The Right Way To Do It. Neither is p*** or nascient fascism. A teacher should be true to themselves in their teaching and do what they believe is best for their students. Wrong would be to teach it if students said no, or not to teach it even if students wanted it. And that goes for other topics too.

    I’m sorry if you felt you were being attacked – totally unintentional, as I was completely unaware of your tweets, though I think you also misinterpreted mine. However. As a final comment, here are a couple of messages @Montberte tweeted this evening that I agree with whole-heartedly:



  8. ddeubel says:


    I really, really appreciate your full response. It clarifies a lot (but also this being such a personal and contentious issue, leaves a lot still to digest).

    Sorry for the late reply, driving for hours and on my way to TESOL Int. conference, but read the comments along the way.

    First off – yes, in retrospect, my comments concerning moral absolutism are harsh and too broad. I fell in the same trap of generalizing as I wrote about those making sweeping judgments about those posting links about the disaster. I’ll amend and will also take down the tweets. I do have a bad habit of letting my rhetorical embellishing carry my thoughts away. Still, I will say I didn’t feel at all like it was directed at me personally but did feel disgusted by the tone and finger pointing of those in the community who do a great service. Enough said.

    But my intentions are honest, to have some dialogue about this. I don’t expect an answer but I expect the discussion and reflection might be healthy. There are several key issues I believe.

    1. The nature of twitter to lack depth and context. Also, it being such a permanent thing – our comments do stay in perpetuity and as educators, we should be cautious. I’ve made the mistake of tweeting before really thinking.

    2. Bloggers, website owners and tweeting. You have an assumption that self promotion goes on a lot. I’m not so sure I’d label it such but I do agree that the “ego” does come into play. However, I think too many take the intentions of people like myself or Sean or Larry Ferlazzo and think what we do is for “reward” or self promotion. Can’t be further from the case. Ego is mixed in there but it is also about having a clear belief in helping other teachers and the rewards that come from creating/informing and yes, teaching. Tweeting and blogging is a form of teaching. So I disagree about your level of scepticism vis a vis intentions of those posting. I don’t disagree that it still can be “murky”.

    3. Timing. When is it appropriate to start sharing information that might be useful for teachers? Peter and Ceri bring this up and lean towards waiting. I lean the other way. It might be distasteful but the same then can be said about the experts in the newsroom talking about it and “teaching” us, Joe public, just an hour after the disaster. I think teachers are a kind of fifth estate – our audience isn’t as large but we do the same thing, we inform and we keep society strong through this role and being a guardian of “truth” .

    I am glad that we are thinking and discussing these things.
    It isn’t easy, given the emotions and ongoing nature of this event. Thanks for everyone’s comments and understanding,


  9. ddeubel says:


    Thanks for clarifying things and I think that is what “muddles” so much with twitter – as I mentioned in reply to Richard.

    I also can see how a “gut” reaction can come about vis a vis this issue. Entirely human. Please read my comment to Richard about my overstating of things too.

    I guess the point is, as you relate, about knowing your students and dealing with things on and from that level. I do agree that this isn’t something you can lock- stock and barrel plan. It has to grow and the teacher has to move with it….

    There are a lot of deep issues at work here. I’m still thinking about it , more so after the discussion. I hope to digest and learn from it. It will happen again, unfortunately I know that much, given history. We each as teachers, have our limits. For the moment, on in favor of the free flow of information between educators but you are right, there are other things to consider.

    Again, appreciate the clarification.


  10. Seb says:

    This has, I think, nothing to do with producing materials. It’s got everything to do with taste. And in the opinion of Richard and others, myself included, right now is perhaps not the time to be using this event as teaching material, especially with anybody affected.

    I would be interested to know how anyone using such material in a context where there are people affected by this terrible disaster evaluated their lessons.

    The closest experience I have to teaching in a context affected by disaster – albeit very different – was last year in Poland after the Smolensk crash. Of course students wanted to talk about it as soon as they walked in, but it came from them and lasted only as long as they wanted to talk about it. I would have felt very uncomfortable using materials on air disasters with them at that time.

    (btw I thought the Speissberger reference very unfortunate! But i think it’s been removed(?) )

  11. Fiona says:

    Have to agree with Seb.

  12. EFL Mum says:

    I think this might be a non-argument.

    Surely whether we talk about disasters in the classroom, when and how all depends on our teaching context.

    If I were teaching children I might very well have a look at plate tectonics and answer all their questions as fully as I could.
    If I were teaching in Japan or had Japanese students or students with links to Japan I would not treat events in the same way.
    I decided not to discuss events in my class unless the students brought it up based on our specific context and explained my reasons here:

    I would never criticize a teacher who decided to focus on Japan because he/she was addressing a need of the students.

    I did, however, get very angry when I overheard a couple of colleagues discussing how they could “use” the disaster as a teaching opportunity.

  13. This post and its comments have really made me think about whether it’s OK to make lessons on disasters for my site

    I started making news lessons for my students after the 9-11 disaster – It was all most people around the world were talking about and my students requested I create materials on it. I responded to their request with a lesson that contained discussion questions about the consequences of that terrible day.

    Since then, I have created materials on many of the disasters that have happened over the past six years. I try to make activities that encourage critical thinking about what has happened. I also design my materials with instructions that are simple enough for students to use as self-study lessons. Students can choose whether or not they want to read the graded article and follow-up material. Apart from VOA’s Special English, I don’t know of any other sites that provide graded articles on breaking world news.

    The big question from this post is how macabre or tasteless the producing of such lessons in the immediate wake of a disaster might be. I make the lessons in the hope that they are used sensitively by teachers who know their students. I wholly agree with Peter and Seb regarding not taking lessons into classes with nationalities affected by that disaster. However, as with my students who requested materials (with vocab, reading and writing, etc.) on 9-11, teachers whose students are far removed from the disaster might feel disaster lessons are acceptable enough to supplement what students are talking about anyway in their L1.

    Richard’s comments on my lessons have helped me cast new doubts from my mind that perhaps I should not be using disasters as lesson content. I think many teachers around the world who visit my site would expect such lessons, given the title of the site. I get a lot of mails and feedback thanking me for producing them. I have never had feedback telling me my lessons were tasteless in any way.

    I will produce lessons on disasters in the future but will be very mindful about the sensitivities expressed here – they are very real.

  14. ddeubel says:


    I think the conversation, issue, comments is all making us do some rethinking – both sides of the fence and sensibilities. I’ll also say in reference to Richard’s comment – it isn’t “easy” to find quality material about the disaster. CNN etc… won’t cut it. You do a great service there.

    EFL Mum – well said. I think context is all important here . It isn’t one size fits all. This is why I still support basic materials on the disaster being shared by teachers.

    Seb. I think you make a good point and I’d be interested to know such. I think a survey on this and the whole general question might be insightful.

    However, I don’t agree with the notion of “taste”. Whose taste? Who is to be the one defining this and making others feel bad if they go about it differently? (and that was the original thing that spurred my post – that I don’t think any teacher should tell others they are “X” “Y” or “Z” because they share educational resources on this topic.

    We are talking basic information here – how a tsunami happens, what occurs, what people can do about it, ensuing problems, geography, culture etc… I think of course, you don’t want to “teach” it right afterwards. But can share materials as professionals as soon as possible. However, after a few days, I believe it is good to use the opportunity to get students to think about all these issues and use it as a teachable moment. There is a lot of “education” that can ensue. That’s my taste.


  15. Isil says:

    Reading your post really ruined my day, and I am still both very sad and angry. I didn’t see your tweet and just got how Richard felt at that moment. As for my local context, I thought it would be impossible for me to conduct a lesson about the earthquake right after it hit Turkey. We experienced such a diseaster in 1999, and I still wouldn’t mention it in my class as it may really hurt some of my students.

    As for Sean, his website is my favorite. I make use of his lesson plans along with other instructors at my institution, which is much appreciated. You pointing our names on your post, seems like we are against all the lesson plans about disasters. However, we are not, in fact I am not. There is no problem mentioning a disaster which happened in some other countries, and after some time passed. Of course, it is still very worrying, but at least there may have little chance that some of the relatives of our students get killed in that disaster.

    I reckon that all the other people appearing on your post would agree that you should remove our names. You have no right to attack and sadden people who didn’t even see your tweet. I wouldn’t reject if we retweeted your tweet and added a comment along with it. However, as you “get it” it is not the case, and you should have been more careful.

  16. ddeubel says:


    I have removed the names/content. For the reasons I’ve elaborated in the post. More context has been provided, their has been discussion but mostly because I do think people should always control their own content/words at the end of the day. This is the first rule of social networking which many sites don’t obey.

    I guess there is still lots to digest for us all. Myself, I am rethinking the role of an educator and sharing resources online (but also not fully convinced it is bad taste). Others, I think need to not be quick to think that teachers can’t responsibly use the information / resources tweeted or that those who share online have ulterior motives of wanting attention.

    And a lot more issues. Appreciate your own opinion.


  17. What a post you made some good points there, as a beginner I am always searching online for articles that may help me. Thank you.

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