The Current Logo

Developing an insider's perspective

Written by Paul Allison
October 17, 2010

My hope is that Voices on the Gulf is helping my students to understand why this crisis matters in their own lives. Perhaps they will see that this spill was not merely a terrible accident that we can look away from now that the well has been capped. With our peers on the Gulf Coast, my students and I can learn from this tragedy even after it leaves the headlines. This disaster can become a case study to help us to see why protecting the environment matters and what needs to change in our culture of neglect, complacency, and environmental indifference in which we all participate.

Another lesson from our work on Youth Voices that we bring to Voices on the Gulf is to have students pose their own questions. On both sites, we help students to create discussion posts around issues that they feel passionately about and that they think are important. Several years ago I learned a simple process from James A. Beane’s Curriculum Integration. I almost always begin a semester by asking my students to write ten questions about “self” and ten questions about the “world.”

From these questions, the students develop themes for inquiry, by looking to see what seems important to themselves and to others. Given this summer’s emergency in the Gulf, it was no surprise to find that students are asking questions that will lead them to study the vital environmental, ethical, economic, and political issues that might not have been on their radar screens before the BP oil spill. And when they publish their thoughts, these posts will be intertwined with the personally rich eyewitness reports from students of all ages from the Gulf.

Because the nation (or at least the media) has moved on to other issues, it’s more vital than ever to have Voices on the Gulf and curriculum projects such as those developed in the summer of 2010 in Edutopia’s Project-Based Learning Camp organized by Suzie Boss.

 A Labor Day (2010) editorial in the Press-Register explained:

Even though BP engineers stopped the flow of oil in mid-July, the effects of the spill will be felt in these parts for a long time. While municipalities continue to monitor and clean their beaches, scientists will be gauging the health of seafood and the ecosystem, and claims czar Kenneth Feinberg will be evaluating and paying damage claims.

On Voices on the Gulf we are not only able to collect and comment both discussion posts created for the site by teachers and students. We can also respond to local radio broadcasts, collections of photographs, local blogs, and newspaper articles that we’re able to feed into the site. A social network like Voices on the Gulf is a great place for my students to respond to the stories from this tragedy that are still being told. They use the site to analyze government, industry, and scientific reports that still being published. And they participate in creating images and writing observations about nature and society.  Voices on the Gulf allows my students to pay attention to our friends on the Gulf to understand what is at stake as the BP oil spill moved from being an emergency to being a chronic crisis.

When the oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, it seemed to make sense to ask, as we did on our Teachers Teaching Teachers, “Why isn’t the BP oil spill being addressed in all areas of the curriculum?” In response to questions about where these issues might fit into mandated, pre-planned curricula, we began to ask instead, “If there’s something in my curriculum that doesn’t help students understand the world we are living in now–after this spill–then why is it there?”

In Gulfport, Mississippi on June 14, 2010, President Barack Obama said the oil spill disaster would shape “how we think about the environment and energy” for years to come. If that was true then, it’s still true now. If this is an “environmental 9/11” as Obama claimed in June, then shouldn’t it be in all of our classrooms from now on?

Of course, the recovery of the Gulf Coast won’t be the only story worth studying. This school year my students will be interested to learn about many other current events as well. What about the floods in Pakistan or the miners in Chile, for two examples? It will be important for my students to follow many different stories, but Voices on the Gulf gives us special access to go deep into this crisis now.

Because the teachers and students on he Gulf Coast are offering their eyewitness reports, poetry, inquiries and interrogations, the students in my classes who use Voices on the Gulf have been able to develop an insiders perspective or empathy. They are developing the tools they need to understand and to learn about any new situation that they choose to study in the future.