New teacher diaries

Flood of questions follow floods from Sandy

After a week without classes, my 5th-graders filed back into school. Fortunately for my class, no one had been directly affected by Hurricane Sandy beyond some minor power outages, though others in our school were not as lucky. But that is not to say we didn’t feel the effects of this tragedy in a very personal way.

My students’ eyes were full of conflicting emotions — a mixture of excitement and fear. Excitement from having experienced something so new to them, from knowing they had survived a powerful threat, and from hours of storm-related news coverage that was far beyond their 10-year-old understanding of the world. Fear about whether it was appropriate to ask questions of their teachers, about whether everyone they knew had weathered the storm safely and — especially after the onslaught of emotions they had seen in their own families — about whether they were safe yet themselves.

They had heard some schools were still closed, and the instability of childhood’s most important institution was terrifying. They had heard some teachers were not ready to come back to our school, and the vulnerability of their authority figures destroyed their sense of security. They had heard that many people, even children, had not made it through the storm, and the fragility of human life was completely overwhelming to them.

Questions and feelings quickly flooded out, unfiltered. Did I know anyone who had been killed? Did my house get swept away? Did I see all the people crying and screaming on TV? Did I hear about the kids who had been washed away from their mother? Wasn’t it exciting to have a week off? Wasn’t it boring to have a week off? The news says another storm’s coming next week — I hope we get to miss school again! The news says another storm’s coming next week — I hope I’m not stuck at home with my brother again! What’s a FEMA? What’s a nor’easter? What’s a storm surge? Why can’t we build walls? Why aren’t the subways running? Why does Mayor Bloomberg talk so much? Why does his Spanish sound so funny?

I did not feel prepared to help counsel these wonderful boys and girls back into the safety of their school routine, but I was ready to try. We began the day with a discussion of the tragic nature of the storm, focusing on which emotions were appropriate to project as we shared stories about something that was so painful for so many people. Giving my students a safe place to share their thoughts and experiences was the first step toward healing our tattered emotions.

We followed that discussion with a social studies lesson on the path of the storm and the many different communities that were affected, and a science lesson on how hurricanes are formed. After discussing ways we could help people we know who are still trying to recover, especially some of the teachers in our own school who had lost their homes, we wrote letters and engaged in a schoolwide drive to collect resources. The boys and girls in my class really rose to the occasion — I have never been more proud of my students.

After lunch, we went back to our regular schedule to establish a sense of normalcy and learn the daily math lesson. With our emotions and community on the road to recovery, we turned our attention toward healing the tattered pacing calendar, one of the many casualties of the tragic storm.

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