Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Shoebox Project

I have always believed that education is a three-way street that includes teacher, child, and parent.  I have also believed that parents play a supportive role in the classroom and a dominant role outside the walls of school.  It is my job to ask questions about my child, the work he or she is doing, and the expectations of the teacher.  It is my job to help my child meet those expectations. It is my job to advocate for my child if need be.  But it is not my job to micromanage the classroom.  That responsibility is mine in the outside world, and the classroom I entrust to the teacher.

However, that doesn't mean that teachers and parents cannot work together to accomplish learning.  This past week I saw a collaboration of school, home, and community come together, and together, we made a difference in the lives of others.

The Shoebox Project started a little over a month ago, the week before Super Sandy hit, when I cleaned out my children's closets and discovered 17 empty shoe boxes.  Before you say, "wow," let me share a few facts:

  • Children under five grow quickly.  They typically outgrow shoes in 3-5 months.
  • If they have not outgrown sneakers in 3-5 months, preschool boys have destroyed them and need a new pair.
  • If they have not outgrown their "girly" shoes in 3-5 months, preschool girls have destroyed the toes and need a new pair.
  • I have 5 year old twins.
Taking these facts together, along with my propensity to store shoe boxes rather than throwing them away, it should not be surprising that I had accumulated 17 empty boxes.  Piled high in my hallway, the boxes longed for a home, someone who could put them to use.  (Remember, I have a hard time throwing shoe boxes in the garbage. )  I asked all of the elementary school teachers that I knew if they could use them.  I posted a plea to my Facebook friends to take them.  No one accepted.

Then the storm came, and I forgot about the boxes, which had become part of the hallway decor, until my husband, in a state of aggravation that was probably caused by frustration in the wake of Sandy, asked whether we could recycle the boxes.  Not wanting to agree that it was time to destroy these perfect, cardboard storage devices, I thought one more time about a good use for them.

My children and I have donated parade and Halloween candy to Operation Shoebox, an organization that supports overseas troops by trying to raise morale and to let them know that people are thinking of them, caring about them.  In fact, the last shipment I sent to Operation Shoebox was encased in an old shoe box that I found in my closet!

Operation Shoebox seemed the perfect use for the boxes in my hall, but this time, I wanted to help children.  I thought of all of those displaced by the storm, the children who had lost all of their belongings and their families who might not be able to give them a Christmas this year, and I wondered if we could do our own Operation Shoebox to build their morale.  By the time the idea formed, I had purchased new sneakers for my kids and dress shoes for my son.  My pile of boxes was up to 20, just one shy of the number of children in my kids' Kindergarten class.  I knew immediately I wanted to bring their teacher into the project, and she was excited to become involved.

Though I knew I could garner donations for the boxes and that the children would take care of the packaging and notes that would be included, I needed an outlet for delivery.  My former student, spurred  by her own struggle to find how one individual could help in the aftermath of Sandy, had started a non-profit organization, NJ Strong, to coordinate volunteer efforts.  She enthusiastically took our project and matched us with a school district that has over 100 displaced families.  Last week, the children in my kids' class created the boxes. Yesterday, NJ Strong delivered 25 wrapped shoe boxes to kindergartners and first graders in those families. (Reports from Asbury Park Press and Atlantic City Press.)

My children's teacher was able to make this project a teachable moment - the class learned the word empathy, a very hard concept to teach to 5-year-olds. The children who received the boxes found a small rainbow after the storm, and they know that someone else is thinking of them, that someone else cares.  The Shoebox Project shows what education can be when community, schools, and parents collaborate in the name of service.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

No Reason to Cry

I have no reason to cry. My home is unscathed, the damage to my property minimal, and my family and friends are doing fine. I have no reason to cry, yet I broke down on the train platform yesterday, standing among a thousand New Jerseyans as we tried to get to work, and again this morning in front of my children as they colored quietly in the cold.

I am heavy. There is sadness for my state, for the people who have lost so much. There is frustration at, with, and for the people who are still without power. There is compassion for the utility workers and government officials who, I truly believe, are doing the best they can in an impossible situation - and who are being criticized vehemently by those without power.

There are all these emotions bottled up, yet it was work that tipped me twice in the last 24 hrs. Yesterday, the commute seemed insurmountable. Today, a glitch in my university's plan for Gmail migration has made my life increasingly complicated. I am trying to take each challenge in stride. And it is making me feel heavy.

One of my students sent an apologetic email, saying she might not be prepared for class tomorrow. She has had only a few hours of Internet access to catch up on a week's worth of work. It's impossible to do it all in so little time, she said. I know how she feels. So much of what we do in our professional lives depends on access. I have been working for some time to fight the "digital divide." I am now on the other side of that divide, and it's making me heavy. I am starting to truly understand the ramifications of living without the tools of digital literacy, digital citizenship, digital life.

I know that some readers have been concerned by my posts. I want to assure everyone that I am ok. Writing is therapy in some ways, and I know that others in my community have expressed that my sharing has helped them too. So I'm continuing to write and share, not to ask for sympathy, but to reaffirm for myself and my neighbors that we really don't have a reason to cry. But it's ok if we do. I know we are all a little heavy right now.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Just an Inconvenience

Two days after the storm someone who does not live in NYC or NJ suggested to me that I (and others) were only inconvenienced by Sandy, that our current struggles did not compare to fighting terminal illness or other world-ending catastrophes. I have been feeling much the same, that I am only inconvenienced and thankful for that, as I see my local area become more and more distressed about being cold, and dark...and inconvenienced.

I know that many of us are thankful that we are not among those who lost homes, towns, or loved ones. But I also want to validate that areas of NJ besides the shore are dealing with major consequences, and for some people it will be world altering.

My town did not flood. Very few homes were damaged during the storm. But high winds and trees did incredible damage. In a 3-mile stretch between my house and town, at least 12 poles need to be replaced before any hope of power can be restored. This power line feeds our grocery store and shopping center, which houses several small, local businesses. It probably won't be fixed for another 10-12 days.

Our inability to get groceries, gas, and other essentials, coupled with the angst of being cold, disconnected, and dark, has turned into public panic. I've even heard stories of guns at gas stations.

We need to drive farther to get food, which means we need more gas. The state has begun rationing gas, with 1970s-style alternate day, limited filling. So driving farther has become more difficult. For many, working has also become a problem. Many stores and restaurants in my town cannot open. The owners' livelihoods are at stake. For those who earn commission or hourly wages and cannot get to work because of power or gas shortages - their livelihoods are at stake.

I am thankful that my family and I made it through the storm with only inconveniences. We can drive 45 minutes to another state to buy gas, and we can find an open bank and grocery store on the way home. My kids will get back to school eventually, and it's ok if they don't have a spring break, or any break, or if they go to school till mid July (and all of these are possibilities). My husband (who works on commission) and I (who cannot take the train to the city) will fill up our tanks out-of-state and drive to our workplaces, both of which have power. We will be cold, and dark, and disconnected for up to 2 more weeks, but the power company will work nonstop until we are up and running. Our world is different, and not in a good way, but it did not end.

I know many in my state whose world has ended. I know many others for whom this situation will be life-altering. I'm worried about all of them and about the lasting consequences of this storm. But I also know that for me, personally, this is just an inconvenience.

For anyone who can, please donate your time or money to help those who are more than inconvenienced. The Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org) needs donations, and one of my former students has started a website to coordinate volunteers (http://www.njstrong.net/).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pioneer Life with Legos

I'm sitting in front of my fireplace, letting the flames warm me as I contemplate life at this moment. To say I have never experienced anything like this is not just a cliche. It doesn't even begin to explain. There is no gas to be purchased. There is no food to be bought. My neighborhood is riddled with downed trees, and there is only one way, an indirect route, to access my street without driving over downed wires. In times of crisis people are supposed to band together, but I haven't seen that community develop in NJ, perhaps in part because I have been isolated from the world. For two days we couldn't get info in, and now we are getting only snippets from Facebook, Twitter, and a few websites that will load, sporadically, on my phone.

This is the third extended power outage my neighbors and I have suffered in 14 months. Our community spirit is lost, in part I think, because this time it's so much worse.

I've been out of touch with work all week, unable to interact with my students or colleagues. A deadline is fast approaching, and I am unable to edit the document my coauthor and I have created. There is no place I can go to get access to the Internet; nothing is open; no one has access.

My university closed until Monday, as New York City fared as badly as we did. I am worried, however, that they will reopen, and I still will not be able to go to work. The trains aren't running. We don't have gas to drive anywhere. I cannot telecommute.

Amidst these worries are my prayers for those who have it so much worse. I know people who were rescued from Hoboken by the National Guard. I know people who lost houses at the shore. I know people who have abandoned their homes because it is too cold for their children. I know people who are facing major cleanup of their property. I am fortunate to worry only about how I will get to work on Monday.

My dad calls me "pioneer daughter," and we are indeed living a 21st century pioneer life right now. But my kids are playing happily behind me, building a luxury house out of Legos. At this point for them, luxury includes heat and running water, but I'm pretty sure we still have it better than the true pioneers.