Superstorm Sandy becomes a teachable moment in LI classrooms

Art teacher Jacqueline McCaffrey incorporated superstorm Sandy into

Art teacher Jacqueline McCaffrey incorporated superstorm Sandy into lessons about Picasso's "The Tragedy" for her eighth grade students at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale, N.Y. (Oct. 1, 2013). (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

The Picasso shows a bleak setting -- a man, woman and child at water's edge, barefoot, forlorn and wrapped in blankets against the cold.

Jacqueline McCaffrey, a visual arts teacher at Uniondale's Turtle Hook Middle School, put the famous piece, titled "The Tragedy," to special use at the start of this school year in relating superstorm Sandy's impact to her eighth-graders.

"We all can make a connection to that painting," she said. "We all had Sandy in common -- and they saw that right away."


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Educators across Long Island have incorporated the storm into their curricula with lessons on topics such as earth science, oceanography, meteorology and journalism.

Students have written essays, drawn pictures, studied coastlines and examined Sandy's weather patterns. Classes have made field trips to storm-ravaged areas to see the destruction firsthand.

"It was something that greatly affected us. And that was one of the reasons . . . this should be incorporated across the district, because of the impact it had on our kids and our teachers," said Nicole Jones, Turtle Hook's assistant principal.

Students in Bonnie Koretz's earth science class, also eighth-graders, compared National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration images of local beaches before and after the storm, with Koretz pointing out how Sandy erased features of the landscape.

"I always like to show them how science isn't something that just happens in a laboratory with a guy in a white coat," the Turtle Hook teacher said. "It is our own personal experiences that we can explain through science."

During school years before Sandy struck, Koretz often had shared the story of Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992 as a Category 5 storm, and told students of her friend who lived through it. She asked her Uniondale students this fall to share what happened to them during Sandy.

"I always teach about my own personal experiences, because that is how kids learn the best," she said.

Sandy meant a shared experience in the Seaford district a year ago, when about 600 students at Harbor Elementary School went to Manor Elementary School for a week after power was knocked out at Harbor.

Last Thursday, all the students at both schools were reunited for the first time since then at the Autumn Classic, an annual fitness event.

This year, students from both schools came together at the Classic's end for a special short service. They exchanged bookmarks and paper flowers in a lesson on cooperation and making the best of a bad situation.

"It taught us that we all pulled together for the same goal," said Patricia Gelling, assistant principal of both schools.

Harbor Elementary fifth-grader Kyle Phieffer, 10, said he appreciated the effort. His home had flooded, and his family had to live for a while in a hotel.

"I was happy because we were in another school," he recalled of last year's Sandy-caused switch.

Faith Ziskin, another Harbor student, said she still is living in a trailer in the front of her family's home as it undergoes repairs.

"It means a lot to me," the 10-year-old said of the service, where she received a paper flower from Manor Elementary students.

Bay Shore journalism students, from the high school's Maroon Echo newspaper, learned directly about Sandy from those affected -- they visited Fire Island and interviewed dozens of people, including business owners, students, real estate agents and Ocean Beach's mayor.

The district's science and English teachers have incorporated the storm into their lesson plans. too. Sandy was referenced in eighth- and ninth-grade earth science classes and in the oceanography elective offered in grades 11 and 12. Oceanography students took a field trip to Smith Point to observe the storm-created breach across Fire Island, through which Atlantic waters surge into the Great South Bay.

"It is through knowledge and awareness of the changing climatic patterns of our region that students, as citizens of a community, will be better prepared for another event such as this," Bay Shore Superintendent Karen Salmon said.

In North Babylon, students from Robert Moses Middle School's environmental club have taken a firsthand look at the damage Sandy caused.

About 75 sixth-graders cleaned up debris at Tanner Park after the storm and recently received a $2,000 ING grant to continue study of the dune ecosystem at Cedar Beach.

They had planted dune grass at Cedar Beach along with educators from the Cornell Cooperative Extension. After Sandy, the students learned that about half of the 1,000 plugs that had been planted were washed away.

"Sandy was in their community. It directly affected them," said science teacher and club adviser Chris Brodmerkel. "I had two students out of their homes for six months."

As the community recovered from the storm, he said, the students were eager to take action, asking, "Can we do something? Let's work on a cleanup."

"It's the kids that pushed that kind of stuff," Brodmerkel said.

Student Joseph Candia, 11, a member of the environmental club, said schools must continue to teach about the storm's impact on Long Island.

"We had a perfect storm that we can just learn from," he said.

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