Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Making 9/11 AND Irene more than just teachable moments

There is a scene in Revenge of the Nerds where Poindexter and a member of the Omega Mu sorority are are on a couch at a frat party and, dazed, he speaks an awkward pickup line: "Would you rather live in the ascendency of a civilization or during its decline?" If you've seen the movie, you know what her very blunt change-of-the-subject response was.

But in the wake of Irene and on the verge of commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I can't help to feel that we've had it both ways.

For me, the 80s were a time for optimism. Rocky beat Drago, Molly Ringwald got Jake and those NERDS defeated the menacing Alpha Betas. The Cheerleader even ran to Skolnick while "We are the Champions" blazed. Brawn, Beauty & Brains.

Pictured: Not the author
The 90s got more complex. The Internet became ubiquitous and it was an all night economic party. Then on 9/11, a network of terrorists spend some thousands of dollars which led us to spend billions (right or wrong). Thinking of the money they put into the attack and the money we spent as a result, that's a pretty big payoff on an evil investment.

Then came Katrina (where the Mexican army had to assist us), then the housing bubble burst. Even though the economic impact of Hurricane Irene is still being measured, it has cost many in New Jersey property damages, slowed businesses productivity, transit and crippled some roads. Then there's the three ever looming rain clouds: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It's enough to make me want to click to Rocky IV and temporarily insulate myself . . . now that we have electricity.

True, what I wrote above could be construed as hyperbole or dementia. But I still often feel our society is surrounded by Brawn and Beauty, but the brains have become lower cased (and only italicized). Maybe it's because I found out
Rocky was really on steroids and the deficit really grew throughout the supposed productive 80s. Or maybe it's because I think the economic downturn will see a continued crumbling of our infrastructure: roads, rail, water, waste, etc. With no money to spend to improve it all, sooner than later, Mike Judge might have already predicted our future.

But what if we could have insulated our state from some of Irene's effects? What if we were less vulnerable to a weather related disruption, terror attack or zombie invasion?

Author John Robb is a military theorist
who pioneered a concept known as resilient communities
. These are simply defined as neighborhoods were you could survive an extended disconnection from the grid in:

Energy - Blocks with solar panels or other energy connected to large town batteries or decentralized grids
Food - Community food, farms & fisheries
Communication - Public or emergency cell phones, land lines, social networking, charging stations
Transportation - Community ATVs, duck boats or even . . . hovercrafts.

The above examples are just my own thoughts, but the list potential goes on. The goal is to have most normalcies of daily life continue, even if something big and bad happens. It wasn't going to stop Hurricane Irene, but it could have drastically lessened its aftermath. If MLB ballparks can create playing fields that drain rain water in record time, then why can't our country, state or municipality do something similar? Oh, then we get to "It's the government" and the taxes arguments, but could it be done in a cost efficient manner?

Robb has already written a book on what the future might look like and is now working on a book about the future of peace and Picture This. It's open sourced and he's hoping people's creativity shine through on a small scale, which eventually will translate to big.

His writings have greatly inspired me, but he does have two caveats:
1) He often writes exactly like you'd expect a military theorist to: a lot of his Global Guerrillas blog posts come off like an issue of the MIT's Technology Review on a caffineless Sunday morning.
2) People could interpret some of his work as a call to build bomb shelters in backyards. We don't want to go that route again.

Those issues aside, Robb's thinking coupled with events of the past decade do call for a new curriculum. New Jersey has been very innovative and actually just authored a 9/11 curriculum (or go HERE if you want the Cliffs Notes).

But what about a curriculum that prepares our youth for the many diverse systems disruptions that come along more often? Like Hurricane Irene or other weather or power-related maladies? Try to picture:
NYC school children gardening

-High school students partnering with City Hall, energy, water and engineering companies and other state corporations and learning how to improve dams, levees and other drainage systems.

-Middle School students going with teachers and parents to the houses of neighbors and linking them via social networking, SMS, robo calls and old fashioned flyers?

-Students learning from working with their towns' Chamber of Commerce on how to get a PR campaign to give small businesses a boost after the economic blows to a municipality. Free youtube commercials any town NJ?

-Vocational-Technical skilled students go help with road, engine, power line & vehicle repair.

-Biology classes growing, irrigating & storing food with farmers.

-Kids volunteering with EMS & Fire (I did see this this weekend).

-More scholarships for the talented who promise to return and live in their hometowns.

Of course there are drawbacks:
Privacy & safety issues
Permission slips would abound
Workers resenting the kids
It could be called slave labor
Residents and employees would have to volunteer
Transportation: School buses & fuel are costly & block a lot of great ideas
Their new knowledge & skills would have to be coupled with ethics
Preparing for disasters could make our youth paranoid or militaristic
We could even hypnotize our kids to become overly addicted to consumer spending: hello Morgan Spurlock!

But since NJ has a new 9/11 Curriculum, it's also time for a Resilient Community curriculum. A lot of cool similar science related competitions exist throughout our state, but they're mostly independent and all over the place. With a recession, college so expensive and student debt mounting, we're going to have to make education to our secondary kids much more innovative and accessbile. It doesn't take a computer (though that would be nice). But communities across New Jersey need to start realizing it may be necessary to their budgets and bottom line. Some knowledgeable, skilled local citizens could save a municipality thousands of dollars.

Maybe you think it's socialism, a kibbutz or like the crunchy granolas (I say that lovingly).

But it's much more like combining:
John Robb with Ed Begley, Jr. from "Living with Ed" and making it every person's knowledge or at least a common broad knowledge.

For instance, every kid should have a map and try to memorize every street of their town. In my current town of residence, I was told only one EMS volunteer knew every street name and which grid affected it. In middle school, my dad gave me a street map of my town.
I used to draw on it. In my room. For fun.
When I got a driver's license, I took it with me and drove Ewing Township's entire borders. I guess I eventually became obsessed with borders. Jokes aside about my boring childhood, every classroom kid should have a map of their town.

Many residents here couldn't get to work on Monday because of road closures, and their GPSes were going nutty. But I could get to the Firkin Tavern (where they had power and free wifi) because of backroads and a map.

Sorry if this is too autobiographical, but point is: it doesn't take much. If you live at the Shore, it could be: Dunes, Drainage & Decentralizing. Classes could be hammering boardwalks back in after school and knowing where they come from. It could be sponsored by the school, city hall or both. Oh, but then you'd have to sacrifice some athletics . . . . ouch.

Bottom line: A curious kid is an awesome thing.

Maybe the problem with our country's schools isn't the administrators, teachers, governors or standards, maybe it's the disconnect between the municipality and the school itself. In 13 years of teaching (yes I teach), I've been to my district's City Hall twice and once was to get out of a parking ticket.

Maybe I need to look myself in the mirror. Teachers do this every September. But as we cleanup from Irene and prepare to commemorate 9/11, maybe New Jersey and America need to take a longer look in the mirror as well.

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