The Earth as a Classroom: Using Groups in Natural Disaster to Teach Resiliency

By Emily Zeng, PsyD

This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 Issue of The Group Circle

Editor’s Note: This first-hand account of working with children in the aftermath of the earthquake in China is a follow-up to the story on AGPA’s Community Outreach efforts, which was published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Group Circle. The following account was written by Emily Zeng, then a psychology graduate student at Yeshiva University, and now the Co-Chair of AGPA’s Ethnic and Racial Diversity SIG. When the earthquake happened in China, Emily, a native of Sichuan contacted Suzanne Phillips, PsyD, ABPP, CGP, FAGPA, Co-Chair of AGPA’s Community Outreach Task Force, and Maureen Underwood, LCSW, CGP, via her professors. During the long summer of 2008, she travelled extensively in the disaster zone, working with children, parents, teachers, and occasionally government officials. A relief material deliverer and self-assigned social worker, she was also a diligent photographer and recorder of oral history who bore witness to the ongoing massive devastation that did not stop long after she left. As you read the article, note the creative application of nontraditional group methods Dr. Zeng applies to trauma recovery. Her work captures the changing face of the group consultant elucidated in Jeffrey Kleinberg’s President’s Column.

No one knows exactly how many children were killed in the earthquake. At Beichuan High School, the only high school in Beichuan, one can only estimate that about 1,300 students died when the two five-story teaching buildings crumbled onto the ground on that fatal day of May 12, 2008. The villagers, pointing to the gigantic wasteland between the main entrance, the girls’ and boys’ dorms, and the outdoor stadium, say that 300 bodies of children are still buried there.

Since nearly everything in the area had been destroyed, tents became the practical replacement for classrooms, kitchens, and even bathrooms. The tent school where I was stationed, one of many rising up the side of Xi Shanpo, Westside Mountain, consisted of two tents and was big enough to accommodate approximately 50 children.

I worked with a small group of volunteers, mostly from Qingdao, Shandong, a province designated by the central government as the “partner” province for rebuilding Beichuan. In addition to teaching the older-child class, I visited the students’ families and other villagers after school.

I quickly learned the practical meaning of local seismological terms, such as yuzhen (aftershock), huapo (landslide), and experienced secondary environmental threats such as floods. The treacherous Tangjiashan Quake Lake, 10 miles away, caused an evacuation of more than 250,000 residents from the downstream Mianyang municipality. After the initial magnitude-8 quake and the thousands of aftershocks that followed, the children had been sensitized and habituated in various ways. For example, in the middle of one class, a student swiftly stood up, reporting, “Teacher, I just sensed an aftershock,” and sat down as if nothing had happened. Then the whole class ran a quick check, discussing whether or not he was right. I stood aside watching, baffled by my own ineptitude to detect even the slightest sign from the ground below.

Entering August, I began to experience the aftershocks at a frequency of almost once a week. One of the first aftershocks came on an exceedingly humid afternoon when even the most exuberant child appeared listless. I was sitting at a desk typing my journal when, suddenly, the wind began to blow and the trees and tents began to shake loudly. The desk wobbled back and forth so much that I could not steady it. Chen and Wang, two sixth graders who were playing marbles, jumped up and called out, “Aftershock!” The village was instantly noisy, adults calling, children crying, dogs barking, cocks crowing, as if it were early in the morning.

Our school was perhaps one of the most well-equipped of the tent schools, despite the general unsanitary condition of the quake zone, with a shortage of electricity and clean water, and an overabundance of flies and mosquitoes, . Thanks to the generosity of early volunteers, we had a multi-function CD/SD/MP3/USB/radio/tape player with a projector that even played DVDs when electricity was steady. The children learned new songs and English pronunciation from this ingenious machine. About 13 of them became excellent photographers, thanks to the child-friendly, digital mini-cameras, donated by a friend in New York.

The children rotated among themselves using the digital cameras. They mastered the basics of photography within days and began a visual journal. We did not have access to a printer, but every day after school, a small group of children would gather around my laptop to review their photos, sharing and critiquing each other’s work. I was amazed to note that the children almost unanimously started with the familiar subjects—school, family, and friends. Then they turned to the animals, plants, and the sky. Eventually they ventured out, taking in the debris, the collapsed buildings, and the landslides. One of the most haunting images was from a sixth grader: “My grandpa was buried by the landslide. Now it is covered with grass.”

The small camera offered a wonderful way for younger children to convey their thoughts and feelings. For the older ones who were more adept at words, writing seemed more appropriate. Changxin, a diligent fourth grader, took days finishing his “tent school dissertation,” a series of “adventures” in the earthquake. In his eyes, the landslide looked like an elephant, and mountains crashed into one other, stopped the river, and formed a quake lake.

One of the most amazing things the children did was to show movies on the tent-filled stadium of Beichuan High School. Two children climbed up the metal fence to set up the screen. One child brought a DVD player from home. Another borrowed a power extension from his uncle. The rest of us set tables and chairs, inviting parents and villagers to come. The children also generously loaned the DVD equipment to another village, so the children there could enjoy the show. The therapeutic use of technology had a unifying and healing impact on the students.

The everyday life of the tent school resembled that of an ordinary Chinese school. The morning routine consisted of ancient poetry chanting, reading, writing, science, and English. The afternoons were comprised of a review of morning lessons, exercises, and play activities. Many opportunities were created for the children to play together, shaping play-dough, bubble blowing, rope jumping, handicrafts, and board games such as Chinese chess. In addition, we also had special games such as Tricky Triangle, Tumbling Tower, and an earthquake puzzle ball made of 240 pieces. The children also created their own games. When they got tired of Chinese checkers, they dumped all the marbles into a basin and used chopsticks to pick them up. And to make the game even more challenging, they divided themselves into small groups, each assigned a bowl, with one child with a timer overseeing the competition. These games fostered teamwork, attention, and concentration, and dealt with issues of building up and falling down.

Naturally, the best games were not the commercial kind, but the more creative, spontaneous ones that involved creating something together that was also therapeutic. The whisper game, in which the children read the lips of one of their peers, cost nothing and was great fun. Noah’s Ark, the game the children enjoyed the most, required only newspaper (a local scarcity then). The children divided into groups, each group standing on an unfolded page of a newspaper. No problem. Then the paper was folded in half, and the group stood on it again. Then the paper was folded again. You get the idea. The children loved it! It was hilarious to see how they came to the decision of taking off their shoes and socks or climbing on top of one another in all sorts of ways, trying to squeeze onto that tiny piece of paper. Even the girls, who had been quiet and passive, showed their true color of “half the sky,” as in the Chinese adage. Xin, who had been buried for hours in her Beichuan High classroom, laughed out aloud for the first time.

One of the books that I used extensively as the practical guide for the tent school was Roger Hart’s Children’s Participation, a participatory action approach working with children. This book provided excellent ideas involving children in community development, using a variety of methods such as drawings and collages, mapping and charting, interviews and surveys, puppetry and photography. Our first group project was about who lived where in the village, which resulted in a village map scattered with the children’s tents. One of the groups came up with the brilliant idea of making two drawings of their old school, Beichuan Hope Primary. The before-the-quake drawing was filled with colored marks and the after-the-quake version was penciled with gloomy shades of gray.

We also used stories to therapeutically work with trauma. One of the stories the children enjoyed the most was a Chinese version of the Snow Globe. The original story, which had been widely used after 9/11, was about two little friends who learned to deal with the loss of a birthday present through a kaleidoscope. I shortened the story so that even the youngest child could follow. I also used two bears to make a mini puppet show. The children loved the story so much that they retold it without missing a single detail. I had not met Maureen in person then, but I had no problem writing down her name on the board and introducing her as a close friend. To my horror, none of the children had heard of 9/11 whatsoever. When I used Legos to demonstrate the plane crash, they stared at me in disbelief. Liang was the first one who raised his hand and said, “Teacher, the pilot must be so poorly trained! He was perhaps sleeping!” The whole class broke out laughing. Each child received a kaleidoscope as a special gift from Teacher Maureen.

The K–2 class had two girls who cried whenever it rained. Other children often teased them by telling them that an aftershock was coming. It was clear that they were expressing their fears of environmental threats associated with the quake. One afternoon, after assigning my class independent work, I decided to spend some time with the younger children. I first read to them the story Me, by Philip Waechter, which is a preschool picture book about the adventures of a bear. Then I asked the youngsters what they were most afraid of. Some children said snakes (a local regular), some said dinosaurs. I took out Earthquake, a Times Kids series featuring buildings falling upon each other. Then everyone shouted out, “Earthquake!” They were all afraid of aftershocks. Then I roamed around holding the book pretending to be a quake monster. The class, playing tents and houses, engaged in a whole body game with a lullaby-like ending:

Shake, shake, shake the house,

Here comes the earthquake.

Shake, shake, shake the tent,

Here comes the aftershock [hold up hands and shake in rhythm).

Oops, it stops! [the class freezes]

[After a few seconds, whispering, slowly]

Here come the stars,

Here comes the moon,

Everyone falls asleep,

All children of Beichuan.

The collective life of the tent school culminated in a memorial trip to Beichuan city. On the day of the three-month anniversary, the children decorated the classroom with balloons, wrote special messages to their loved ones, and made a remembrance box. It was the first time we took a trip as a class. Passing the military checkpoint and troops of soldiers, we went up the Jinjiashan mountain, and buried our remembrance box in the cave that overlooks Beichuan city.


So many things have happened since I returned to New York. That September, a landslide caused by nonstop rain buried the village. We lost four children, two mothers, and 20 other adults. The village was forced to move out. The Westside Mountain, which the children once charted and mapped so enthusiastically, exists no more. Local officials killed themselves one after another. Survivors dropped out of the windows of hotel or hospital buildings out of despair. More children are left orphaned. More aftershocks.

On a more positive note, a new Beichuan High School was established. The old town of Beichuan is relocated to An County, now part of Beichuan. While the villagers are living in prefab houses, a world-class earthquake museum, which encompasses Beichuan High School, the Beichuan City, and the quake lake, is being built.

I stay in touch with a few children through their cell phones. Yue dropped out of school soon and began selling quake photos in front of Beichuan High School. Several other children also joined him in their spare time. Recently, Fei’s mother sent me a pair of innersoles. Karen, a volunteer who visited her, said that those magnificent innersoles were hand-made for me and “not for sale.”

I revisited Beichuan. Maureen, who has been to Tibet twice, also came with me to visit the children. Life goes on. As we remember from Maureen’s story, no matter what happens, the goodness and beauty of life are always still there.


Hart, R. (1999). Children’s Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care. UNICEF. London: Earthscan.

Hart, R. (1992). Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Retrieved June 1, 2008 from>

Underwood, M., Milani, J., Spinazzola, N., Miller, J.L., and Burawski, R. (2004). Going On After Loss. Mental Health Association in New Jersey, Inc.

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