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September 14, 2017

Rebuilding Our Classroom Community After Hurricane Harvey

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

    In Texas, most (if not all) students are back in school before August is over. Instead of Labor Day marking the end of our summer vacations, it is our reward for surviving the first week or two of school. This year was no different for me, as I welcomed a new class of fifth graders on August 23. Those first few days can be stressful and exhausting, but I absolutely love them. The new year’s possibility and potential hang thick in the air, and I feel completely at home amidst the nervous chatter of students who are eager to know what this year will hold for them.

    I am passionate about a lot of things in my teaching, but at the very top of the list is building a tight-knit classroom community from the very start. On our first day together, we used yarn to symbolize our gifts and how we could share those gifts with each other. As we passed the yarn around again and again, we learned about each other’s gifts and realized that they helped to connect us to each other. We ended up with a giant web that represented our gifts and our connectedness. We all felt the repercussions when we tried to move in different directions, and we found that tasks were much easier when we worked together. I hung the yarn web on the wall as a reminder of this connectedness, and my students decorated the classroom door with a visual representation of their gifts.

    We were strengthening relationships and were off to a great start, and this was just day one! Day two was filled with more opportunities to build on this, as we had our first sharing circle of the year and talked about how our unique gifts contribute to a greater whole in our classroom. I was amazed by the conversations and was poised and ready for a great day three.

    …and then I took a look at the weather forecast. There had been buzz all week about a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s hurricane season in Texas. There’s always a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. It seemed to be growing, and there was potential for some real trouble for Houston. In every discussion I had that day, the feeling was that we should probably fill up our gas tanks and make sure we had some good junk food on hand, but we’d likely be just fine. So on the afternoon of August 24, I set up my room for the next day’s work and left like it was any other day. By the time I had reached my car, I got a message that my school would be closed on Friday and Monday “out of an abundance of caution” so that people could prepare for this growing storm’s potential damage.

    Since I found myself with a long weekend, I decided to leave town — just in case. I packed a small bag, grabbed my most important documents, and headed to my mom’s house about 90 miles from Houston (and further from the coast). I, like so many other Texans, could have never imagined the devastation that would follow for Houston and so many other towns along the Gulf Coast of Texas. My mental list of worries was miles long and growing every day, but a constant entry on it was my concern for my students. How were they? How long would it be until I saw them again? How would we reconnect with each other after having been so thoroughly changed by this terrible storm? Building a classroom community is something that feels easy and natural to me. REbuilding a classroom community felt daunting at best and impossible at worst.

    My students and I returned to school after Labor Day, having missed a little over a week of classes. We were one of the first schools to return, and at the time of this writing, some of the larger districts are still closed as they work on ensuring safety in buildings and transportation routes. Returning for that “second first day of school” was a surreal experience. Every single person I spoke to seemed so torn between doing the important work of returning to a sense of normalcy and the mountain of Harvey-related tasks that awaited him or her at home. I knew that my students would come with their own mental list of tasks and worries, and I desperately wanted to honor that as we worked together to rebuild our classroom community.

    I love the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day, and I found it to be especially poignant for the work in front of us. I knew that this could be a catalyst for our rebuilding efforts at school, so I told my teammate about it, and we took a chance. We played the song for our classes (you can listen to it here), and gave them a simple prompt: What do you think it means to rise up? I gave them some quiet reflection time and looped the song a few more times. Then I gave them a blank sheet of paper, and they went to work. My only request was that they try to define “rising up” in both words and pictures. The results that I got back were so touching to me that I am hesitant to give any commentary. I’ll just let you see for yourself.

    We Texans have a bit of a reputation for being unabashedly in love with our state. I feel confident in saying that our pride has only swelled bigger in the last month. I know that my classroom community is only a small sample, but it is already stronger post-Harvey than I believe it ever could have been otherwise. My students have reminded me that we are Houston, and we will rise up.

    In Texas, most (if not all) students are back in school before August is over. Instead of Labor Day marking the end of our summer vacations, it is our reward for surviving the first week or two of school. This year was no different for me, as I welcomed a new class of fifth graders on August 23. Those first few days can be stressful and exhausting, but I absolutely love them. The new year’s possibility and potential hang thick in the air, and I feel completely at home amidst the nervous chatter of students who are eager to know what this year will hold for them.

    I am passionate about a lot of things in my teaching, but at the very top of the list is building a tight-knit classroom community from the very start. On our first day together, we used yarn to symbolize our gifts and how we could share those gifts with each other. As we passed the yarn around again and again, we learned about each other’s gifts and realized that they helped to connect us to each other. We ended up with a giant web that represented our gifts and our connectedness. We all felt the repercussions when we tried to move in different directions, and we found that tasks were much easier when we worked together. I hung the yarn web on the wall as a reminder of this connectedness, and my students decorated the classroom door with a visual representation of their gifts.

    We were strengthening relationships and were off to a great start, and this was just day one! Day two was filled with more opportunities to build on this, as we had our first sharing circle of the year and talked about how our unique gifts contribute to a greater whole in our classroom. I was amazed by the conversations and was poised and ready for a great day three.

    …and then I took a look at the weather forecast. There had been buzz all week about a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s hurricane season in Texas. There’s always a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. It seemed to be growing, and there was potential for some real trouble for Houston. In every discussion I had that day, the feeling was that we should probably fill up our gas tanks and make sure we had some good junk food on hand, but we’d likely be just fine. So on the afternoon of August 24, I set up my room for the next day’s work and left like it was any other day. By the time I had reached my car, I got a message that my school would be closed on Friday and Monday “out of an abundance of caution” so that people could prepare for this growing storm’s potential damage.

    Since I found myself with a long weekend, I decided to leave town — just in case. I packed a small bag, grabbed my most important documents, and headed to my mom’s house about 90 miles from Houston (and further from the coast). I, like so many other Texans, could have never imagined the devastation that would follow for Houston and so many other towns along the Gulf Coast of Texas. My mental list of worries was miles long and growing every day, but a constant entry on it was my concern for my students. How were they? How long would it be until I saw them again? How would we reconnect with each other after having been so thoroughly changed by this terrible storm? Building a classroom community is something that feels easy and natural to me. REbuilding a classroom community felt daunting at best and impossible at worst.

    My students and I returned to school after Labor Day, having missed a little over a week of classes. We were one of the first schools to return, and at the time of this writing, some of the larger districts are still closed as they work on ensuring safety in buildings and transportation routes. Returning for that “second first day of school” was a surreal experience. Every single person I spoke to seemed so torn between doing the important work of returning to a sense of normalcy and the mountain of Harvey-related tasks that awaited him or her at home. I knew that my students would come with their own mental list of tasks and worries, and I desperately wanted to honor that as we worked together to rebuild our classroom community.

    I love the song “Rise Up” by Andra Day, and I found it to be especially poignant for the work in front of us. I knew that this could be a catalyst for our rebuilding efforts at school, so I told my teammate about it, and we took a chance. We played the song for our classes (you can listen to it here), and gave them a simple prompt: What do you think it means to rise up? I gave them some quiet reflection time and looped the song a few more times. Then I gave them a blank sheet of paper, and they went to work. My only request was that they try to define “rising up” in both words and pictures. The results that I got back were so touching to me that I am hesitant to give any commentary. I’ll just let you see for yourself.

    We Texans have a bit of a reputation for being unabashedly in love with our state. I feel confident in saying that our pride has only swelled bigger in the last month. I know that my classroom community is only a small sample, but it is already stronger post-Harvey than I believe it ever could have been otherwise. My students have reminded me that we are Houston, and we will rise up.

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