How to Read a Flood

As it does most years around this time, my hometown’s (Fredericton, New Brunswick) Saint John River has flooded its banks, causing some streets to close and leaving general traffic mayhem in its wake. While watching the chaos, I realized it might make for an interesting project for children to explore and learn about. In doing so, they could learn to think in systems of all kinds, from natural systems like waterways and seasons, to human-made systems like urban planning and colonialism. These sorts of systems, and these ways of thinking, are grounded in the world of the child and prepare them to think in powerful ways they’ll find useful throughout their lives.

Here are some things a classroom could do:

Ask the class: who was affected by the flood? Students who take the bus? Who get driven to school? Who walk or bike?

What happens to the city when the river floods? What roads are closed? What happens when those roads close? (Traffic backs up big time; many years there is traffic all the way up the city’s main hill!) How essential are those roads that were closed? All kinds of urban planning questions could be raised and explored here.

What caused the river to flood? Here’s an opportunity to talk about the seasons, snow / ice melt, and how natural systems interact with human / city systems.

It’s also an opportunity to talk about the city of Fredericton’s geography (it’s a river valley city). Why is Fredericton built as a river valley city? (how was it colonized by Europeans? why did they establish it on the river? were there indigenous settlements here before the Europeans came?). This is also a chance to discuss why Archie comics are so relatable to people in North America (there are so many “River Dale” cities, like ours!)

How does flood time compare to other events where streets are closed? (like a parade or when the Prime Minister visits) How does advanced notice help prepare? (and how do you let the city know about it?)

Finally, you could use the flood as a jumping off point for thinking about what kinds of tools you might use to think about a flood. You can look at it from a city planning perspective, with paper maps, rulers, etc. What do the maps show? What do the maps ignore? Are there different kinds of maps? How would you apply what you learn to other cities that have different layouts or geography? How might you deal with the flood differently? How might you prepare for it? What kinds of tools let you think about cities abstractly?

Fredericton’s annual flood is a concrete event that’s happening in the students’s city, in the place they’re familiar with, and it’s something that can prompt questions and get them to think about bigger pictures.

Compare this to the way maths (or worse, computers) are taught today: entirely abstract and detached reality, devoid of meaning and to most kids, utility. None of the things I discussed really require a computer, but it’s interesting to consider how you might explore those questions with the aid of a computer (and if such a computer doesn’t exist, what’s your wildest fantasy for what such a computer might look like that does?).

See also Doreen Nelson’s City Building / Design Based Education which probably does stuff like this and much more.

Anyway, happy flooding Freddy Beach!

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