It’s no secret that Houston is in a state of recovery. Following the floods brought on by Hurricane Harvey, many found themselves homeless. Others breathed a sigh of relief as their home and possessions were spared. Now, with a new school year underway, many teachers are finding themselves with classrooms that both affected and unaffected students. This presents a difficult challenge, as teachers try to ensure academic progress while also being sensitive to their students’ personal situation.
Even more difficult is striking a balance between those students who were impacted and those who were not. It’s important to be aware of which students are and which students are not living in their homes (and who may never return to them), but it’s also important not to leave other students behind. As a teacher who also may have been impacted, the first part of the school year is an important time to strike a balance between these two groups. There are a few ways to accomplish this without interrupting the school year.
Talk about it
While the school year must go on, it’s impossible to pretend nothing has happened. By ignoring the difficult situations Hurricane Harvey has brought on, it makes it hard for students to empathize with one another. While there’s no need to force students to talk about their experiences, it’s important to provide a platform and a safe space where they can speak if they want to.
For those students who are unaffected by the hurricane, this may shed light on the situation their peers are going through. And for those students who are impacted, they will know that they are not expected to act as though everything is fine.
Share your own experience — whether you were impacted or not — as an example. It may even be helpful to share multiple teacher experiences, from those in both groups, so students can see that they are not alone (no matter where they fall). Once it’s clearly established that the classroom is a safe space where students are not judged, it becomes easier to delve into the course content.
Approach the classroom as a community
While teaching concepts and reaching learning goals is important, the classroom culture will set the tone for how successful you are. Instead of barreling ahead with the content, take some time to encourage your classroom to act as a microcosm of the city of Houston. Remind your students how, in the days during and immediately following Harvey, the city came together. Strangers and neighbors helped one another without question, selflessly lifting one another up through kind words and actions.
In the context of the classroom, this may require a new type of differentiation and flexibility. By encouraging all students to help one another, and providing mixed group experiences where the impacted and the non-impacted students are able to work together, you can replicate the kindness and generosity seen within communities during the hurricane.
Maintain learning goals, but remain flexible
In any school, there are students who require more time, more flexibility, and more understanding. By approaching those students impacted by the hurricane with this in mind, you’ll allow them the opportunity to perform well, despite the difficulties they are facing at home. This may mean providing assignment extensions and modifications, or simply taking more time to focus on concepts being discussed. Providing additional tutorial hours can be helpful as well, and you can call on your unimpacted students to help.
That said, these impacted students also may crave a sense of normalcy. By not dwelling on the hurricane (or their status as ‘impacted students’) you allow them the opportunity to tackle their academic work just as they would any other year. Rather than singling them out, maintain open tutorial hours for all students.
While not true of all students, some of those who are unaffected may stay focused longer or achieve learning goals faster. This provides you with the chance to put these students in a teaching role themselves. Rather than allowing the unaffected students to simply complete the work and move on, give them the chance to enrich and reinforce their learning. Extension activities can be helpful, but perhaps even more useful is allowing them to work with their peers who are struggling.
Regardless of how many students are impacted by Hurricane Harvey within your classroom, the school year is going to present teachers with unique challenges. The quicker the classroom is brought together as a community, the more successful the year will be. Each student, regardless of their situation, should understand that you are invested in their success.
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