A caring message to quake zone

Hub students do activities to support victims in Japan

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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Sitting in small groups, fifth-graders at Bradley Elementary School in East Boston methodically folded colorful pieces of paper into beautiful cranes. They made baby cranes and mama cranes as well as blue and green cranes. They hope to send the cranes to survivors of the Japanese earthquake, as a symbol of their concern.

“We’re trying to foster good will,’’ Timothy Nagaoka, who teaches Japanese at several Boston schools, told the class. “What you’re doing is a very noble cause. Many people text or send donations, but you don’t always have to send a text or give money. There are other ways to show that you’re thinking about them.’’

Throughout Boston, students are showing support for their peers in Japan. In West Roxbury yesterday, students at the William Ohrenberger School and Beethoven Elementary School had a uniform-free day — they got to wear street clothes by making donations to the American Red Cross. At the Eliot K-8 School, in the North End, students started a spare-change collection for the Red Cross. And next week, Lee Academy Pilot School in Dorchester plans to host a representative from the Japanese consulate’s office for Japanese Awareness Day.

These types of activities, educators say, empower students by helping them to make sense of disasters. The service projects also help allay the fears of students who have been inundated with televised scenes of destruction.

“Incorporating these types of events helps our students become culturally responsive and globally literate,’’ said Bethany Wood, the senior coordinator of international programs for Boston public schools. “It goes beyond the textbooks and makes all of their learning experiences real.’’

And Meira Levinson, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University, said teachers can use the crisis as a tool for discussing issues such as nuclear power.

“If they develop those ways of thinking and a capacity to interpret the news in complex ways, then they also gain some ownership and sense of control,’’ Levinson said. “It’s not just ‘Oh my goodness what happens when there’s another earthquake?’ ’’

The situation in Japan has been a regular concern of students since Friday’s earthquake, tsunami, and the resulting crisis at nuclear plants. Japan comes up at the lunch table and on the bus. And, it came up yesterday while the students folded their paper cranes, a symbol of longevity and good fortune in Japan and also part of a legend that says anyone who folds 1,000 origami cranes will be granted one wish.

“It’s really sad, because most of the Japanese don’t have homes, and when I was watching the news they said it looks like toys floating in the bathtub,’’ said Paulina Torres, 11. “At home, we talked about it . . . and my mom said each student should bring in $1 with their cranes.’’

Teachers find themselves trying to help students respond to the drama of the disaster in Japan, but also understand the nuances of it.

“You have to tread a little softly,’’ said fifth-grade teacher Kathleen Gover. “Our answers are based on what they want to know.’’

Christian Toro, who is one of Gover’s students, said his lunchtime conversation with friends has recently been about Japan’s twin disasters. They’re scared, he said, “because of the nuclear reactors.’’

“I think that if there’s an earthquake here or a tsunami, the nuclear reactors might break down and start affecting the air and we might get a disease,’’ the 10-year-old said yesterday while folding cranes.

Letting students express concerns is important, said Catherine Chiu, the district’s director of guidance. But, she said, so is reassuring children that “bad things can happen, but the earth regenerates itself, too.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at