FV #21 - Exploring a Disaster Zone

 click any image in this post to enlarge

Building Empathy by Understanding Loss

A couple of weeks ago The Official Google Blog had a post explaining that they had updated Google Maps and Google Street View to reflect the damage caused in Japan by the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. They also created an amazing before and after version... more information on that below.  

As stated in that blog post:

A virtual tour via Street View profoundly illustrates how much these natural disasters have transformed these communities. If you start inland and venture out toward the coast, you’ll see the idyllic countryside change dramatically, becoming cluttered with mountains of rubble and debris as you get closer to the ocean. In the cities, buildings that once stood proud are now empty spaces.

I couldn't agree more... I was mesmerized walking around the debris and found myself thinking about the both the tragic loss of life and the memories of those lives as everything was washed away.  Needless to say, this is certainly worth sharing with students.  We are (typically) so far removed when a disaster happens so far away it is difficult for children (and adults) to fully comprehend the extent of the destruction and what it means to the affected population.  I think that being able to "walk the streets" will help provide a more intimate understanding to everyone who views these heartbreaking images.  

I believe that developing empathy in students is critical for their development and eventual future success in an increasingly global world (Many people feel empathy is an important skill to develop for cross-cultural competence 1,2,3).  The activity of showing students these images and providing time for them explore and discuss with each other what they see can be a step toward having them build this skill set.


Using Google Street View*

To take a look at the Google Street View images start by going to Google Maps.  Once there, go to Japan, and zoom in on the area around the coastline close to Sendai.  

My screen shots below were taken in Higashimatsushima (put this in the Google Maps search field: Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan).  Once you are zoomed in enough, grab the Google Street View "man" and drag and drop him to an area highlighted in blue.

You will now be taken to street level and can now explore around, seeing the damage from eye level. I suggest using the split screen to see the Street View on the top and the map on the bottom.  This makes it easy to get around.  Enlarge the picture below to see how to do this. The bottom picture shows what the split screen looks like.


Before and After

Google went even farther by creating a companion website called "Memories for the Future" where you can easily compare the before and after Street View images.  This website is where you can really visualize the (devastating) results of the tsunami.  Please click the image below to enlarge the sample screen shot.  Your own personal reaction should illustrate how easily you can see where this website could lead to some meaningful discussions with classrooms of students.


Weaving Empathy into the Classroom

A creative teacher could integrate this activity into just about any curriculum (A math activity where students need to calculate the rate of speed of a tsunami, for example).  Once the context is framed, it's time to work in some empathy activities.  When looking at these pictures, ask the students some questions designed to get them thinking.  Author David A. Levine suggests these simple questions:

  1. What happened? (identify the event)
  2. How is that person/those people feeling? (an understanding the other person's feelings leads to empathy)
  3. What will I do? (decide on a specific action to respond to the event)


Additional Ideas

Wordle - You can have students create a Wordle of their reflections after a discussion that utilizes the Tsunami Street View images.  For even greater impact, create a single Wordle that captures an entire class reflection (you can do this using Wordle + Google Forms).  It would be very interesting to see which words come forward as the most important descriptors of how students feel.

Word Processor/Google Docs - Students can collaborate and write poems and short stories that center around the events and emotions of the tsunami and the after effects. The could be captured and put into digital book format using a tool like Issuu.


Final Thoughts

I've spent hours looking around the wreckage of the towns and villages.  To me, the impact was just so profound that I really wanted to understand better what happened and how people are coping with the intense devestation.  Since I can't walk around the impacted areas, looking at pictures might be the next best thing. These pictures were taken months after the March disaster and  I can only imagine what it looked like immediately after.  The amount of work the Japanese have spent cleaning up and rebuilding is staggering.  You can see signs of this activity throughout the Street View images (look for heavy machinery, cranes, dump trucks, construction workers, etc.). It is a real testament to the people of Japan. Looking at these images is really an emotional journey through a disaster zone and I believe I have a better understanding of the events that happened that fateful day in March as well as in the weeks and months that have followed.  My immense respect for the Japanese sense of resolve and duty (already well established) is even greater now.  I really want to thank Google for their respectful memorial of this catastrophe.


Additional Screenshots


*Learn more about how to use Google Street View.