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Building on Children's Capabilities and the Healing Power of Authentic Work : Puerto Rico

Updated: Jul 15, 2019


Part of the healing mural in Mariana, Humacao

Updated: Dec 29, 2018

"A fish needs water like a person needs real work."


Christine Nieves leads a community in Puerto Rico that was flattened by Hurricane Maria and not only bounced back quickly, but grew stronger as a result. She recently gave an amazing TEDMed talk on resilience, in which she said, “it was through this process of DOING that we were able to heal…in fact, generations of false narratives collapsed before my eyes as we came to understand that communities in PR are powerful beyond measure.”

We want all students to feel this kind of resilience. Sociologists who study children and families during and after disasters agree that engaging students in community problem solving builds efficacy and creative confidence that may have been stripped away by disaster and trauma.

In Children of Katrina, researchers studying elementary age children and disaster resilience emphasized how important acknowledging and validating children’s capabilities can be to their recovery and long-term health. One 8-year-old (whose mother froze from fear) made a baby-sling out of a bedsheet to attach the baby to his mother so that they could wade through deep water to safety. Children in shelters were helpful and resourceful, and needed something to do. When engaged by the staff to help others, they achieved a healthy recovery more quickly and steadily.

In Puerto Rico, resourceful children were enlisted to figure out challenging problems like caring for elders in high-rises with no power or water, how to use art to memorialize and reinvigorate their town, and how to set up a rig to deliver food and water over deep riverbeds. My point is, building on children’s optimistic creativity and resourcefulness before, during and after crises strengthens resilience through efficacy, creative confidence, collaborative connections, civic engagement, entrepreneurial & leadership mindsets, and deep content learning. Children who have been through trauma seek ways to ensure that others will not have to feel the same helplessness. There is great joy and excitement in schools that believe in young peoples’ potential to effect positive change.

Teachers, too, benefit from doing authentic creative and collaborative work connecting students with their world and their school community. In the first ever design thinking for problem solving school in PR, energy is so positive that teachers have not missed a single day of school, with the exception of a teacher who is ill during her pregnancy. In her case, her collaborative team stepped in (ordinarily there are no substitutes) and students continued to forge ahead. Seniors skipped their senior skip day, in favor of working with their pro-partners or their design team. 100% of the teachers have found that once they learned how to teach the mindsets and skills associated with a design thinking process, once they engaged students with the community in making a real difference, they began infusing those best practices throughout their curriculum.

Next year, working with a multi-sector alliance formed by Banco Popular, they hope to develop plans for k-16 PBL curriculum based on the grand challenges confronting Puerto Rico. Learning content, 21st century skills, and resilience mindsets through climate change challenges such as renewable energy, equitable access to food and clean water, infrastructure challenges such as resilient, sustainable, fair transportation and housing, and cultural challenges such as sustaining Boricua culture in the face of colonialism and global collaboration are scheduled to rearrange the discipline-based approaches.

The timing is right. Best practices exist for teaching and assessing the 21st century skills and mindsets. Empathy-based design thinking and making gives educators and students a process through which both are empowered to affect real positive change in their world.

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