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Learning at its Best

Finding Our Footing After Superstorm Sandy

 

Last Monday I decided to invest ten or fifteen minutes out of our forty-nine minutes of instruction to reconnect. Sandy changed us all. The students have varying reactions. Some were impacted minimally. They aren’t aware of the outside world beyond what impacts them directly and they only lost internet for twelve hours. Which was devastating for them at the time but survivable. Others lost power for days, had structural damage and struggled in the dark for over a week. Still more have family members who have no homes, no place to turn and are still reeling in shock from the events. Because the impact was as varying on them as it was on the state, this seemed a perfect time to once again get to know each other.

I wanted to reengage, revisit, reconnect, not just for my young people but for me as well. I needed to get back to my world and my work. I’m was hoping this work will provide the path. As noted in Counseling Children After Natural Disasters:Guidance for Family Therapists by Jennifer Baggerly And Herbert A. Exum, “Due to the large number of children that will experience typical symptoms after a natural disaster, family therapists can maximize their efforts by training parents and teachers to provide supportive responses and basic interventions for their children (Harper, Harper, & Stills, 2003).For teenagers, positive coping strategies will include group interventions that process emotions through expressive arts, drama, and rapping/singing.” (82, 83) The common symptoms in adolescents noted by the mental health professionals post disaster included: “flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, substance abuse, and depression (NIMH, 2001). They may also experience headaches, stomachaches,risk-taking behaviors, lack of concentration, decline in responsible behavior,apathy, and rebellion at home or school.” (81)

After the initial three days back in school, which included a winter storm and half day impacted by more weather issues, power outages, road conditions and the stress inherent therein, we finally experienced our first full week of school. On the final Friday of our initial three days, I had noticed both within my classes and in the halls in general, the students were resistant to attending classes, there were many more outbreaks of bickering and argumentative behavior, name-calling was reaching new levels (escalating from normal “gay,” “bitch,” “stupid,” to “mutherf**er,” “cunt” and other instigating language) and in general the classes were tired, nonresponsive and reluctant to re-engage. And I noticed I was struggling to re-engage as well. I was cranky, short tempered, less willing to explore non-confrontational language when speaking with students and overwhelming tired of the whole situation. Getting to and from work was an exercise in frustration between gas rationing, traffic, accidents (which seemed to have tripled) and general malaise.

After Friday class, I went home very depressed. Saturday morning, I got up and rethought my strategy. I would use Monday as a new starting point. And see if the group theatre work could help refocus my young people and myself.

I decided to use the game “Good Week, Bad Week” to tackle the students’ experience as a whole with Hurricane Sandy. I allowed them to choose their own groups of four or five people and then asked them to share stories of one good thing about being off for a week and a half, or a good thing about the Hurricane’s impact on their lives. This was a struggle for some. Some students expressed that they couldn’t find a single good thing about the events. I reassured them that this was okay, perhaps as they listened to others a moment would arise, or perhaps they saw a story on television about the aftermath that had resonated for them that they could share. This wasn’t a do or die assignment. So, they went around and started talking about getting time to sleep, bonding with family, games of Uno and Dominos with siblings, lots of social media time due not losing power, other things that had been good about the storm. We then created tableaux from their good moments and reflected on what we, as the outside group, saw in their pictures. Included in other’s perceptions of the tableaux were sharing, eating, games, solitude, sleeping, pranking friends, social networking and hanging out. These tableaux generated a lot of laughter and dialogue as the students started to share funny moments from the events that many had experienced but hadn’t realized others had as well.

After the tableaux, we went back into our groups and shared a story about something bad from Hurricane Sandy. Again, I reassured them it didn’t have to have happened to them, it could be a news story they heard or saw, it could’ve occurred after the storm when they ventured out, it could be little or big. Anything they felt comfortable sharing. Then they created short scenes titled, “The Storm.” They jumped into this portion with more energy and enthusiasm. Everyone had something to say about the storm’s negative impact on their lives. Even those who had only lost power for a day spoke about trees or gas stations. The gas station fights, lines and tensions had clearly had a major impact on these young people. We then put the scenes on their feet and shared them with each other. As we reflected afterwards about what we had seen happening and what had worked (and why), personal stories started to emerge. I had anticipated this might be a part of this process. However, I felt it was important for my young people who are so used to being “connected” either through social media or school to reconnect after losing their ability to really communicate with each other for over a week. They spoke about the fear when they went outside with no lights in their neighborhood. A normally familiar environment seemed scary with no power. They spoke about the anger at the gas stations – they were not used to seeing adults so out of control. They spoke about bonding with their families and how that was really special for them. They spoke about wanting to come back to school but then returning and it was like being back after summer but there was no vacation. A particularly poignant moment for me was when one young woman spoke of how scary the week was because she was afraid of the dark. The shadows with candles are very different than electricity and the entire week had been enormously stressful. At that point, a large football player in the group spoke up and said, “I’m scared of the dark too. I just hung out with my mom the whole time.” There was this moment of synchronicity and awareness that it was okay to be in high school and afraid of the dark. Many of us are. You are not alone.

I told the students that we would be working on curriculum this week but that we would take some time to reconnect with one another and find our rhythm again. Many of them expressed their appreciation for this concept. They came back on Tuesday and they were far more focused and kinder to each other again. It seemed that by taking the time on Monday to acknowledge and address the elephant in the room, we had come back together and could find some head room for academia. And we could once again find room in our hearts for patience and listening. It was remarkable difference. We were still tired. But we continued to give ourselves a break – I slowed down the pace on the curriculum. I brought the group together on Tuesday and again on Thursday to discuss how we would move forward on the curriculum (when we would perform monologues, etc.). I made sure opposing voices were heard, ideas were explored and the students had a voice in the timeline. The stress in the room continued to drop. And even though we had a test midweek on our memorization of the material – everyone passed. We had given ourselves time to breathe and permission to fail. Somehow, that made it safe to pass.

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About SngrLittle

Jennifer Little is a fulltime drama teacher in New Jersey. She spent over fifteen years as a professional actress, performing on Broadway with such luminaries as Harold Prince and in film (with Ron Howard and Penny Marshall) and television. More recently, she turned to working with at-risk students, doing Literacy through the Arts, Guest Artist programs and creating arts programs for inner city schools. In 2005, she began teaching fulltime, working on bringing applied theatre to standard curriculum programs within public schools in the U.S. and integrating Social Studies and English into the Arts. She has created a critically acclaimed program that focuses on theatre's role in society and actors' responsibility to the world and recently published a book, "Changing The Way We Think," available on Amazon.com.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Finding Our Footing After Superstorm Sandy

  1. I can’t imagine the courage it took for all of you to process so much together -

    A key thing we should think about more often in schools is how to help kids name and voice their experiences safely, but also authentically.

    What principles of recovery do you think we could take from the work you and your students have done, Jennifer?

    All the best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 29, 2012, 8:27 pm
    • Chad,
      Thank you for the feedback. I think as educators, we must be mindful that young people experience disasters much differently than we do, but that they do EXPERIENCE them.

      Often we are so focused on getting them back to normalcy and routine, we forget to allow them the time to process that we allow ourselves. Even if they, personally, had no direct impact from a disaster, the ripple effect goes throughout the community.

      It is okay to take a little time from the curriculum to address the disaster but in a safe way, giving the students a way to reflect with an aesthetic distance that the arts provide. And not make assumptions about their feelings based on their behavior.

      The article I referenced in the blog has a lot of useful information.

      Thanks

      Jen

      Posted by SngrLittle | December 3, 2012, 7:41 pm

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