In The Wake of Sandy, Digital Tools Help Students Tell Their Stories

November 20, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Professional Development, Students, Technology Integration

It has only been a few weeks since Hurricane Sandy decimated the East Coast. Many are still without heat and power. Students have had to commute to open schools in different counties, and those affected by the storm are just beginning the recovery process. A sense of normalcy still seems distant, and as families try their best to send their children safely to school, teachers have begun raising the question: How does one teach in light of disaster?

“Schools serve an important function after a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy—they provide a sense of normalcy amid chaos,” wrote Lori Ungemah, Assistant Professor of English at the New Community College at CUNY. “As much as I have tried to embrace the slow life of this past week and the unexpected quality time with my own children, there was a definite feeling that something was amiss.”

These feelings of discomfort and trepidation are intrinsically linked with the experience of loss, and the scope of families’ losses is vast and deep. Many are not only coping with physical damage to their homes and property, but also with the emotional stress their families are feeling. My Aunt, a teacher in Atlantic City, tried to explain to me how disjointed schedules and fractured homes have been affecting her Kindergarten students, many of whom have been displaced:

Our kids are resilient, they are happy to be back in school. When you ask how they made out in the storm, they say “my house got wet.” One little boy said his “toys got a bath.” A lot are without clothes, and need winter coats. Kids have also been complaining that their parents are fighting. It’s very stressful for parents; they are dealing with FEMA, insurance claims, lost appliances and furniture, condemned homes and more. Atlantic City is a mess.

Her school did not resume classes until Nov. 12, almost two weeks after Sandy struck land, and has suffered significant damage including the loss of the school cafeteria. Students must bring bagged lunches every day and eat inside their classrooms. Underground oil tanks have leaked, leaving many houses in an unlivable condition and students without clean clothes to wear to school. Many have parents that work in the surrounding casinos who are now unemployed. My mother, a teacher of middle school students just outside of the city, said that she can see her students worrying about their families’ financial stability, so much so that it has affected their capacity to concentrate in the classroom.

As National Writing Project teacher Paul Allison noted recently, part of recuperation includes processing one’s experience, and students, especially, need a safe and stable space where they feel heard. Allison has been networking with other educators along the coast, including Director of the Kean University Writing Project Mia Zamora.

“This experience presents an immediate opportunity for students to be creative, personal, journalistic, and generous with their ideas, especially in digital format,” she said to Allison in one of their many emails back and forth.

As Zamora pointed out, digital tools are important because they provide a forum for students to share their stories about the storm and get support. Social networks that allow students to publish and share their experiences create a sense of community that is accessible and constant. Knowing that students from across the country are reading and responding to their stories reinforces the fact that they are not alone, and that their peers really care about their struggles.

Allison, Zamora, and others have been finding innovative ways to share their students’ stories online. Youth Voices, a school-based social network started in 2003 by a group of National Writing Project teachers, has dedicated a portion of its website to house students’ stories about the storm.

One middle school student Sabrina Khan wrote, “On Sunday, when new information of Hurricane Sandy was coming in, and the mayor canceled school I realized that this was huge and was something not to be taken as a joke […] So basically for hurricane Sandy I did what anyone else would do, curled up hoping I could help those stuck in the storm but also to keep myself safe.”

Students from across the country can connect with each other about Hurricane Sandy, and students who have lived through other natural disasters can reach out to those still working through Sandy’s aftermath to provide support. It also allows students from unaffected areas to read firsthand accounts, which can be so much more powerful than those on the evening news.

One student, “Elle D.,” responded to Sabrina’s story and wrote, “At first I had just heard comments and things about the hurricane and I didn't think much of it. After reading this and realizing it affects real people, people like me, I thought much more of it. It’s really sad how some people are making jokes about it, and pretending it's no big deal  when, really, it is.” Other students responded to Sabrina with their own messages of fear, hope, and perseverance.

Another great online resource that has popped up in response to Hurricane Sandy is StoryLine, a collaborative documentary project created by MIT’s Center for Civic Media and The site allows people affected by the storm to share their experiences through audio clips, text messages, and cell phone pictures, and in this way, tell their stories and share ideas for rebuilding their communities.

And the U.S. Department of Education created this helpful document (pdf) for teachers returning to the classroom after a disaster. Paul Allison provided this abbreviated version. The document provides a step-by-step guide for educators on how to best serve students in the process of recovery.

As an East Coast native, the effects of the storm have left a personal impact on me and my loved ones back home. However, the networks of support that have formed in light of this disaster have been an empowering example of communal strength and compassion. Educators who have not only been scrambling to provide students with a sense of stability and routine, but a place to share their experiences with peers as well, are doing some of the most inspiring work of all. I can only hope that these new collaborations continue to cultivate, and help foster the emotional and physical healing that is necessary for Sandy’s survivors in the months ahead.