Arwen Kuttner teaches in coastal New Jersey.

My landline rang at the same time as my cell – a clear sign that I was receiving yet another automated call to update us on our school’s status since Hurricane Sandy.

“Today is Thursday, November 1st. Unfortunately Yeshivat Noam still does not have power and school will be closed. We are trying to arrange for some classes to be held today in people’s homes, from 12:30-2:30. If you can host or you are a teacher who can teach, please text me…”

Teaching in people’s homes, I thought. Teaching what? All our materials were at school, and the gas shortage prevented me from making a run for supplies. I didn’t even know at first which class I’d be teaching. As a second grade support teacher I didn’t have my own group of kids and didn’t know if the other second grade teachers had stayed in town or perhaps left to stay with relatives who had electricity and heat.

I emailed my availability, then waited. Due, I guess, to the high volume of communication and the complexity of organizing school in this way, I got no response until 11:00 when the two phones rang again. There would be classes and another phone call would follow soon to tell which classes would be held in which homes.

So I had an hour and a half to eat lunch, find out from my supervisor where I was supposed to teach, figure out what to teach there, and somehow drive into Teaneck NJ from Englewood, avoiding downed trees, power lines and long rows of people waiting for gas.

High tech to low tech

I launched into focused goal-setting mode. On a day like today I knew that I would not be teaching any sort of regular curriculum. A part of me wondered if this should become a group-therapy session for the children, but the smarter part of me recognized that that was not what these second graders needed right now. If any of them wanted to talk I would certainly listen, but the main thing they needed was structured activity.

With that in mind I hoped to provide some sense of normalcy, give them structured play time that also felt academically challenging enough to give them a focus other than the storm, and finally, to build a sense of community.

Luckily, I’m a materials-hoarder. I also was fortunate to have electricity and could power up my computer and printer. Using a make-your-own word-find program, I created a Hurricane Sandy word search. I thought fast and hard to mix in as many positive words as I could for the search  — “helping” and “family” in addition to “wind” and “power.”

I carefully put 20 copies of the word find game into my bag and added:

Teaching in the dark

The house was a modest one with long rectangular windows down one side of the living room that provide all the light we’d have that day. The air was chilly but manageable with so many kids packing together on a couch, on the floor, and squeezing onto a few chairs.

I stood back first and observed as the Judaic Supervisor started off with the kids. After three days with no school or routine, the children were rowdier and sillier than usual, bouncing on cushions, rolling on the floor and talking out of turn with their friends. Who could blame them after 3 days at home without power or routine? Shadows under the eyes showed that some hadn’t been sleeping well and maybe weren’t so sure about coming at all today.

When it came to my turn to teach, I started off with the “I Have/Who Has?” activity. Each child had a card containing an answer to a math problem and then a question for someone else to answer. To do the activity the children have to sit very quietly in order to hear the problem and then see if their card holds the answer.

“I have 20. Who has 7 + 7?”

“I have 14. Who has 10 + 5?”

“I have 15….” and so on.

The task was simple, but focused enough to require the children to listen to their neighbors’ answers and to feel a sense of importance for playing their personal role. That sense of quiet and cooperation helped to foster some spontaneous reminder of classroom community.

Then I wanted them to have some time when it was all right to talk with their friends, but to do so with purpose. The ideal would have been a well-thought out project, but with today’s limitations, I divided them into groups for simple activities.

One was the top-it game, a second was the word search, and finally, the “making words” sheet in which they had to try to guess a secret mixed-up word and, make as many words as possible out of the letters. The room quickly got noisy and busy, but was controlled. I felt somewhat frantic with so many things happening in such a small space, but as I really watched the children working in their partnerships and groups it was clear that most of the kids were essentially busy and calm.

Talking about the hurricane

Finally it was time to bring them together for a read-aloud. I was a little conflicted as to what to choose. I had a few silly books, Duck For President for one, and some Thanksgiving books too.

What I really wanted to read was One Smile, a book associated with the Pay It Forward Foundation. It’s a sweet story about a girl who smiles at a young man who is feeling sad. He feels so good from her smile that he is inspired to change a flat tire for someone, and that person pays it forward as well. I wasn’t sure how the kids would respond because the story was almost too feel-good for kids who’d been having a hard time listening to directions when I’d first walked in.

The effect of the book was remarkable. One child who had been slouching in a chair silently during much of the activity now sat front and center on the floor eager to share his observations at the end. And when I asked, “Is there anyone here who has had to help any one else this week? Is there anyone here who has needed help and gotten it?”

 “I helped move branches that were blocking the sidewalk.”

“We went and slept at my cousins’ house.”

I followed up the discussion with the questions: “How did it feel to help people?” and “How did it feel to be helped?” The children answered repeatedly with one word, “Good.”

The parents began arriving and we teachers said goodbye to the children. It had been a relatively short teaching session, but an exhausting one. As I picked up the scattered papers that remained and watched them leave, I reflected on how we’d done that day, in the dim light, with the aftermath of the storm all around us.

Good.

About the author
Arwen Kuttner began teaching in Portland Public Schools after earning an MAT in elementary education at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. A decade later, she is now supporting Second Grade students at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, New Jersey.