When disaster strikes;Primary;Books;Geography;Subject of the week

26th March 1999 at 00:00
THE WORLD REACTS SERIES. Flood, Earthquake, War, Famine. By Paul Bennett. Belitha Press with The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. pound;8.99 each.

EARTH ALERT! SERIES. Rivers, Transport, Farming, Energy, Settlements, Coasts. Wayland with WWF. pound;9.50 each.

One of the pleasures of teaching in primary schools is that children are still curious about the world around them - curious, and concerned.

They are bombarded, after all, with images of conflict and suffering. Hurricane Mitch, the Colombian earthquake, the bodies of the dead and dying, and always, long lines of stumbling refugees, follow each other almost nightly on their television screens. So do our own concerns - global warming, sea and air pollution, the threats and promises of biotechnology, poverty and wealth, the quality of life.

As teachers, we want to help children make sense of this. We want to help them make better choices than we, their parents, did. It is environmental education with something extra, because this is about hopes and fears as well as theories and facts. In the sense that it deals with issues of current argument and debate, it is inevitably controversial. It isn't easy.

All the more reason then to welcome two new series designed for the nine-to-12 age range, each published in association with a key organisation working in the relief and conservation fields.

In the case of The World Reacts, the partner is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. Its theme is what happens to people when disaster strikes and how the world mobilises its forces to help. The four titles so far are Flood, Earthquake, Famine and War.

In each of them, the treatment is consistent. Twelve double page spreads deal in turn with causes, immediate effects, immediate and longer-term responses, and the possibilities for improvement. With each topic there is a short case study, good photographs, and a short eye-witness account.

In Famine, for example, there is a topic called Money Matters (sub-headed Foreign Debts, War and Famine, Money for Arms) and one called bluntly Land and Power. Each book closes with a "How you can help" section, and the message here is simple. Try to understand the problem, it says - and do something to help the helpers. There are useful addresses and suggestions.

In Earth Alert!, co-published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the message is slightly different. This series deals with what "development" is doing to the Earth and the message, gently but firmly stated, is that all of us, including the pupil readers, have real choices. If we believe in democracy, that's important.

The titles here are Coasts, Rivers, Settlements, Farming and Transport. There is inevitably some overlap, but the different authors achieve striking consistency of tone and language. Best of all, they don't pull any punches. "Did you walk to school today?" the last one asks. "No? Why not?" Again, the style links explanation with case studies, often with interesting web site addresses for further reference. There are lots of photographs, some of them striking enough for use in this paper's "Big Picture" feature, and some excellently chosen follow-up activities.

I liked the do-it-yourself solar power kit, for instance - and teachers will appreciate the topic and resource web, which links each book to national curriculum programmes.

In short, two excellent additions to the class library. Different groups could easily work on different titles and then compare their notes and their reactions. Be warned, though, to expect some interesting discussions. In their different ways, each of these titles challenges our own, too-comfortable, assumptions. Cheap food, cheap power, out-of-town shopping, mass tourism and global trade get questioned as bluntly as that journey to school by car.

There will be protests in some quarters that these are political issues. Of course they are - but that is all the more reason for giving children the means to think objectively about them.

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