Hurricane Sandy – Let’s Stand Together

I’m not sure what they add up to yet, but I’m ready to offer a few stories in response to Hurricane Sandy. Maybe you can help us make them count.

Two weeks after Sandy, in a front page article of The New York Times, Raymond Hernandez writes what those of us who live in the New York-New Jersey area already know: “It is clear that the effects of the storm are still being acutely felt.” (Cuomo Will Seek $30 Billion in Aid for Storm Relief, 12 Nov. 2012)

Given the devastation in some areas and how little was touched in others, sometimes we’re not sure how to respond. No matter how close or far we were from the worst of it, we have begun to tell our stories.

Here’s one example that says something about how we might be able to help each other tell our stories.

A student in my class who recently posted his Hurricane story on Youth Voices first told us that the storm had no effect on him, “except” he drifted off into a whisper, “it took me a day to get back from New Jersey.”

“Say what?”

“Yeah, and when I got back to the Bronx there was no power for another two-and-a-half days.”

“So you have a story to tell.”

“I do?”

“Yes. Open up a new Google Doc.”

“Yeah, I guess there’s a lot I could tell you.”

An hour-and-a half later, Ruth (who was named after the Babe) had composed, edited, and published a story, a hurricane story which, through the details of his experience, shows the fear, giddy-ness, confusion, and concern for our families that many experienced because of Sandy. Ruth writes:

As we opened the curtains, there was a river full of water running down. It was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Dogs were swimming, and I noticed that Raymond’s yard was full of a lot of cats, which I found funny: 1. They don’t like water much. I guess in Raymond’s yard they felt safe. 2. The way they were lined up looked like they knew it was coming, like the end of the world type of thing.

The waves of the currents were so strong that the water took a minivan out where it was parked. Five trees fell down. Two hit two people’s cars and the other three blocked the roads.

“Heeeelloooo! Mom! Not electricity! No Gas! No phones!” by Ruth

Eliciting stories like this is one thing we can do. Many of us in the New York City Writing Project (NYCWP) have been wondering how else we might work with our students as we all respond to Sandy.

In a recent blog post, “Teaching After a Disaster” (2 Nov. 2012) that was also published the Huffington Post, Lori Ungemah, Assistant Professor of English at The New Community College at CUNY and NYCWP colleague, writes:

For those of us who work in schools that lack a large (or any!) support staff, I feel that teachers/professors need to… use writing and texts to discuss reactions to disaster, grieving, and recovery. Weave it into the curriculum so that it doesn’t seem like a lesson to “fix” the current issues (impossible) but an addition to your current course of study.

I’ve also been reaching out a bit to our colleagues in nearby local Writing Projects. These days we tend to begin emails to our colleagues with greetings like this one to me from Mia Zamora, Director of the Kean University Writing Project in Union, New Jersey:

“Good to hear from you and hope all is well.”

Then we share our stories of being “transferred to a hotel since we still do not have power, heat, and water in our home” (as Mia wrote to me in early November).

Or as Joe Conroy the Technology Liaison from NWP@Rutgers wrote on November 12: “I was without power for an entire week following Sandy, and lost power again following the nor’easter.”

When we write to each other, we are quick to say that compared to others near us, “we are blessed to have avoided more serious complications from the storm.” Or Joe’s assessment: “Devastation was far worse as you moved directly east towards the shore, and north; these are the areas where our TC’s both live and teach.”

Our schools and universities were shut done for a week or more, and we’re still not sure how this will impact our colleagues and our students

One thing we think must be true is that there are many stories teachers and students have to share. And we will be looking for people to hear and respond to these stories. That’s one thing we can do for each other. “We have begun to reach out to our colleagues via twitter and e-mail to see what emerges,” writes Mia.

Joe says, “I believe there would be interest” to share stories “if I put the word through to our site and through internal email.”

We are also curious to know how other teachers plan to address the storm with their students. “This experience presents an immediate opportunity for students to be creative, personal, journalistic, and generous with their ideas, especially in digital format,” Mia observes in her email to me.

“Is this still timely?” Joe wonders toward the end of his email to me on November 12, and I rush to respond, “Yes!”

As I wrote on the NYCWP Listserv (1 Nov 2012) shortly after the storm:

We need to tell stories of our cultures now, almost as a preservation effort, but not really. It’s more a matter of reminding ourselves what we are fighting to keep. Another is to tell stories of recovery. Emotional and physical health of children in New Orleans is still low, I understand, and we often forget to look at the long-term effects of these things….

And there is also a sense that our curriculum — our frameworks for learning — need to be about the HOW we come to know and act, not the WHAT we need to know. It’s as simple as asking: When something like Sandy, the BP Oil Spill, the Nashville Flood, the Tsunami in Japan… happens, can you shift to that curriculum — the content for which is everywhere — and still be on track with your curriculum goals? Moving to the crisis in front of us is a natural part of the curriculum if the goals of that curriculum are things like: raising your voices about things that matter, making connections with people locally, nationally and globally, finding, sharing, and critically understanding the resources available to us, and moving to take action — whatever students might imagine together with mentors. And there is more, more about how important it is to listen to the students, to hear what all of this means to them.

What can we do after disasters like this?

A few years ago, at the height of the BP Oil Spill, I started working with our colleagues on the Gulf Coast, and I learned about the importance of students (and teachers) telling their own stories. At the time I would say things like, “You and your students are on the front lines of climate change and a political culture that requires us all to live differently.”

Only a few years later, those of us in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere who are still trying to understand Hurricane Sandy can perhaps learn from our friends along the Gulf Coast.

We’re collecting stories, reactions, responses… anything about Sandy on Youth Voices. You’ll see that we are also collecting resources, providing texts to annotate, videos and podcasts to write about, and more! (I really love the work our StoryCorps friends are doing at StoryLine!)

We want to foster further inquiries and multi-media responses into Hurricane Sandy. We invite you (and your students) to comment on any of the posts you’ll find in the column on the left side of the page at

Please allow me to point to a couple of wonderful connections that can already be found there. We can learn from Caroline Derbes’ third-grade students in Louisiana who sent stories from Hurricane Gustav like these three to Youth Voices to let us know that they were thinking of us:

Tyrell G.: We went to my grandmother’s house in Clinton. My mother thought we would be safe there. We packed food and clothes, and we brought our dog… When it wasn’t raining in the day, I would help Grandmother in her garden.

Kyra W.: To prepare for the storm… we had to bring a swing in. It was a long and tall swing, so I slept on it. It was fun…I played UNO with my mom. I had to teach my grandmother how to play… My house is a daycare. We did not have power, but the daycare was open still… We let the windows up. It was very hot … for 9½ days!

Tiara J.: When everyone heard a hurricane was coming, everyone was busy buying supplies going here and there. Most people were scared …and stayed in their homes. My daddy and mommy say that more hurricanes will come. “Here we go again!” I say…The Red Cross is trying to help people so much.

Our friend and colleague from the Acadiana Writing Project, David Pulling wrote this in response to an 8th Grader’s post describing her experience of “Hurricane Sandy in Jackson Heights,” Queens:

I can relate to that feeling. Down on the Gulf Coast where I live, we dealt with Isaac a few months ago. It looked pretty dicey while we were watching the storm approach, so my wife and I provisioned up with gasoline for the generator, batteries, and a trunk load of supplies a few days in advance of landfall. When Isaac got here and determined his final track, we were blessed to be on the west side of the storm, so all we got was breezy, blustery kind of day with some rain. The lights never went out. Yeah, I was tempted to feel let down, like Mother Nature deprived me of her something in which I had invested so much preparation, but when I arrived at my senses, I was relieved. I stored the gasoline for the rest of hurricane season just in case and then poured it in the car and the pickup tanks when the season appeared over, and we’ll use the batteries and drinking water sooner or later. Nothing wasted, and nope, not let down: We were let up! Sounds like you were, too. But the same down here as with you, tens of thousands of people in adjacent areas of the state suffered devastating flooding, went without power for weeks, and really suffered. I’ve experienced other storms where we got clobbered, so I kind of know what those people and the folks in Jersey and New York are feeling. And trust me, that ain’t no fun!

What’s one thing you could do? You could comment on our students’ posts, and you might already have your own stories of resilience in the face of human-created/climate-related/carbon-connected crises. If you don’t have such stories yet, you probably will soon. We need to stand together now more than ever. And you might ask your students to do the same.

I’m sure there are many other ways to help as well, but one further way is to join me in asking: How does curriculum change? After the Massey Mine Disaster, the BP Oil Spill, the Tsunami that brought about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, the floods in Nashville, and now Hurricane Sandy… don’t we have some responsibility to ask: How does curriculum change?

We need to have a curriculum that isn’t bound to any particular content, but is open to developing with the content that inevitably hits us in the face. And I know it is a curriculum when something happens and students come to class and say, “We’re going to deal with this, right?”

How could we not?