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Heading Back to School After Hurricane Sandy – A Brainstorm

By Alycia Zimmerman on November 2, 2012
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

As my dear city staggers back to its feet with its renowned resiliency, my brain is finally clicking back into teacher mode. Next week, many of us in the Northeast will be heading back to school for the first time in over a week. Many of my students have been stuck at home for days without power, heat, and running water — and the destruction and fatalities facing nearby coastal neighborhoods makes our plight seem minimal.

Bottom line: When I return to school with my students on Monday, I need a game plan that will allow my students to reflect and share about their hurricane experiences, that will clear up misconceptions, and that will provide an academic focus as well as a feeling of empowerment. I have been brainstorming some post-hurricane back-to-school activities with my colleagues, and I would really love to hear your suggestions as well!


Brainstorm 1: Twitter Boards

Several years ago “tekspert” and professor extraordinaire Chris Emdin shared the idea of creating “Twitter Boards.” Twitter Boards are a high-tech rebranding of a low-tech teaching idea. You simply post a question or topic on the top of a piece of chart paper or dry erase board, and then students can “tweet” their responses, speaking their minds in 140 characters or less.

I am going to post several Twitter Boards on chart paper around my classroom, and as students arrive on Monday, I’ll invite them to jot down their responses to my prompts. Some of the topics I plan on including are: People Helping Others, Hurricane Sandy Questions, My Feelings About the Hurricane, and What Was Scary? By scanning the Twitter Boards, I’ll have an idea of where the conversation will be headed later on in the day. (This teacher has an adorable idea for creating a more permanent Twitter Board in your classroom.)


Brainstorm 2: Be a Good Listener!

While they have been at home, our students have probably been doing a lot of listening — to the TV news reports, to their parents airing their own frustrations, and even to eavesdropped phone conversations. Children do a lot of listening we adults aren’t always aware of!

When the students return to school, I plan on giving them a lot of time simply to be listened to. We will gather on the classroom rug, and I will encourage the students to each take a turn sharing their feelings, thoughts, and questions. I’m going to have to bite my tongue because it is so tempting to jump into a “share session” to provide information, to guide the conversation, or to alleviate the students’ concerns. However, I know that I will stifle my students’ chance to resolve their true feelings if I seek to “pad the process.”

Facilitating these sorts of discussions is a big challenge — especially since many of us teachers are still dealing with the repercussions of Hurricane Sandy in our own lives. Fortunately, we’re not alone. The Crisis Management Institute has already compiled a wealth of resources for talking about the hurricane in the classroom. Be sure to check out their video, too; their suggestions and guidelines helped me feel a lot more prepared to discuss Hurricane Sandy with my students.


Brainstorm 3: Get to Work!

Let’s face it, for many of our students, the events of the past week have been a trying exercise in patience and severe boredom. They were cut off from their friends, their scheduled activities, and the electronic devices that fill spare moments. Returning to the normal routines of school will be a big relief to our students. With that in mind, after allowing my students the time to reconnect and share about their experiences, I also want to be sure to have some activities on hand that will feel like “regular” schoolwork.

Meg, one of the revered 2nd grade teachers at my school, discussed how she is going to connect the students’ experiences with the hurricane to the sequencing work they were doing in class prior to the hurricane. What a great way to extend the students’ schema while also allowing the students to cognitively process the events of the hurricane.

Download my Hurricane Sandy Sequencing Writing Template.


Drawing is a great way to have students reflect on their experiences. A four-part guided drawing experience will allow them to think about the hurricane through different lenses. The students can use their drawings to stimulate student-led small group discussions or as a springboard for writing.

Download my Hurricane Sandy “Draw It Out” Organizer.


Brainstorm 4: Read About It!

I have used the book Hurricane! by New York author Patricia Lakin for years, long before my students had any firsthand experiences of a hurricane. Patricia’s poetic narrative is an excellent mentor text for any personal narrative (or small moments) unit, but is now particularly meaningful.

The book tells the story of a young girl who visits a beach house on Cape Cod with her father. As Hurricane Bob approaches, the girl and her father prepare for the storm. After the storm, the community works together to rebuild. The description of the storm itself is particularly colorful, and my students have always enjoyed crafting descriptive sentences inspired by Lakin’s writing. She provides a brief teaching guide for the book on her website.

After I share this book with my students next week, I plan on having them write “juicy” similes that describe the hurricane, and then paint an accompanying illustration with watercolors. We’ll have a ready-made bulletin board of art and writing about the hurricane!

My students reflect on the figurative language in Hurricane! by Patricia Lakin.


Additional Resources

  • WNYC (National Public Radio) featured a special guest on the Brian Lehrer radio show who discussed Hurricane Sandy live on the air — Elmo! You can listen to the segment as a podcast on their website. Although parts of the broadcast are geared towards adult caretakers, other parts may be of use with your students. Elmo has really been getting around! He also talked with children on ABC News about Hurricane Sandy. There is even an old Sesame Street episode about a hurricane hitting Sesame Street that shows the events of a hurricane in a very child-friendly way. (Spoiler alert: Big Bird’s nest is destroyed.)
  • Students may have misinformation about Hurricane Sandy, and we can do a lot toward alleviating their fears by calmly presenting the facts. For older students, this may be a good time to discuss accessing news from credible sources. (The photos with sharks Photoshopped onto New Jersey neighborhood streets are a useful counterexample!) Scholastic News has reliable and age-appropriate news about the storm, such as the article "Recovering From Sandy."
  • For some children, thinking about the hurricane's effects on human life may be too much to handle. Instead, you may want to share this relatable article about the challenges facing the marine biologists at local aquariums near the shore. (It's an interesting idea — how ocean flooding can damage an aquarium. I mean, these are ocean animals! This can be a good science conversation starter.)
  • For young scientists, Hurricane Sandy may spark an interest in severe weather patterns. You can share this short PBS video profile about a hurricane scientist. NASA provides a wealth of scientific information on their website about hurricanes and cyclones, and the blog at Scientific American has some interesting graphs about the weather stats for Hurricane Sandy that may appeal to some of your more mathematically minded students.
  • Finally, for those of you who can currently connect to your students (or their families) via email, here's one more idea. I'm sure that the students are hankering to connect with one another and share about their experiences — they have been out of contact for a long time! The website Wallwisher allows you to create a private message board that can only be accessed through a dedicated link that you can share via email. You can create a hurricane question for the top of the message board and then have students (who have electricity/internet) respond online on the wall. (Students do not need to login or include identifying info.) This way the students can post responses and read their classmates' responses.


What are you going to do in your classroom this week to address the students’ experiences with Hurricane Sandy? Do you have advice from previous experiences you can share? Any thoughts about service projects we can put into action right away with our students? I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions. Most of all, I hope you and your families are safe!

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This sounds like it was a wonderful plan for your post-Hurricane Sandy return to school. I'm wondering if you can share any stories about how these activities went and what kinds of things the children shared? Thank you!

I am collecting supplies for a first, second or third grade class that has yet to be named. My fire station and my hospital work group are donating these school supplies. I need a recipient. Please contact me with a needy class/address to send the items to, and how many students you have.
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The first day back after the hurricane I read the book, That's Good! That's Bad! by Margery Cuyler. We discussed the students' experiences and I asked everyone to share something that was good and something that was bad about the storm. Later, each child used the book's pattern in a Writer's Workshop piece about the storm. They came up with some great ideas and looking for the positive helped to alleviate some anxiety.

Thank you, this is very helpful.

Thank you for the wonderful ideas above! I am going to use some of them when we return back to school. I am so touched to connect with teachers who truly care! Our mission now should not be about going back to school and diving right into and finishing lessons done before the hurricane. We have to focus on our students' feelings and create lessons based on the hurricane that will connect with our current plans. We need to take our students' emotions into consideration and help them emotionally overcome any obstacles they've faced. Again, than you for the ideas! Let's keep making a difference in the precious lives of our youth!!!

Hi Alycia! Thanks again for your offering of great suggestions to do with my students. I did the "Sequencing Hurricane Sandy" chart with my 2nd grade class. Since I didn't have access to the printer upon arrival to work I quickly copied it by hand. In doing so I adapted it a bit by framing each box (before, during, after) with curtains and a circle within each box for the students to draw their "feeling faces" in. I wrote sentence starters on the lines underneath each box (I felt.../Then, I felt.../ Now I feel...) and guided them through discussion first to include the reason(s) behind their feelings. This was one of the first activities they did as soon as they arrived to the classroom (well, after the many warm hugs - still no heat in our building). We also made a running list of adjectives to describe the feelings we experienced. It worked out very well..THANKS AGAIN! :D ~ Celeste H. (PS 347 - The American Sign Language and English School - Manhattan)

awesome!! Thanks so much! Can't wait to use the graphic organizer with my students !

Thanks for the information. Great blog post. many students and a large number of our staff were deeply affected by the storm.

These are awesome! Going to use the graphic organizers with my students tomorrow!

An elementary school ESL teacher in Brooklyn says:

Thanks for this great post, I'm going to use some of your resources tomorrow!


Hi everyone,

Thanks for your support. Like I said before, thankfully my school and neighborhood wasn't badly affected except for trees that fell on our homes and cars. We have friends that are homeless. The schools in the areas of Geritsen Beach Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Canarsie Brooklyn, Mill Basin Brooklyn, Rockaway Park and Far Rockaway Queens, many areas of Staten Island and Long Island and other parts of NYC and New Jersey are asking for specific things that are badly needed and can be fun for your students to donate...like new socks. Here's a list of what they're asking for:

batteries, wipes, toiletries, plastic cups, spoons, plates etc, can openers, cleaning products, garbage bags, flash lights, diapers sizes (3,4,5), paper towels, work gloves, diapers, blankets, feminine products, under garments, socks, and of course school supplies.

Thanks again

http://www.nycservice.org/ this is a website on how we can help

Yes, please let us know how we can be of help! Our student council would like to be of assistance. Millerm@mdusd.org

I'm a teacher in Brooklyn, NY and grateful that my school and neighborhood wasn't affected badly. There are some schools whose PTA's have set up fundraising initiatives. My friend is a teacher and parent of a student at Waterside Children's Studio School. Waterside is in Rockaway Park Queens, and they were devastated. So were schools in other parts of Queens like Far Rockaway, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Each borough of NYC was affected. Some schools were destroyed as well and are housed in other buildings. Schools are collecting warm clothing, water, school supplies, canned goods feminine items, anything the families need. Maybe giveforward will be used by other schools as well. Be careful of scams and make sure it's a real school and PTA. Thanks for your support.

Here's a link to Waterside's fundraising effort. I'll try to post other places when I find them. http://www.giveforward.com/waterside.

Do you know of any ways that teachers and classrooms can support families and schools that were affected? Are there service projects that you can recommend to classroom teachers to help others through this tragedy?

Thank you thank you thank you.

How can schools help schools affected by Hurricane Sandy?

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