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Reading, Writing and Relief

The TC Reading and Writing Project works in schools across the city. Now it's helping many of them to get back on their feet after Hurricane Sandy
The TC Reading and Writing Project, and its director, Lucy Calkins, have been working on the ground in New York City schools for more than 30 years.  The Project regularly brings thousands of teachers from around the country to TC for weekend professional development sessions. So for Calkins, TC’s Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature, it was a no-brainer that her organization would get actively involved in helping schools devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

“So many of these schools are ones where we’ve been partners for a long time, so we were hearing directly about what had happened to them, both from their people and from our own staff,” says Calkins. “So there was just no way that we weren’t going to do something.”

“Something” has taken the form of Literacy Lifeboats – an initiative Calkins came up with last Thursday evening, and as of this writing, had collected nearly $30,000.

Literacy Lifeboats is providing hard-hit K-8 New York City public schools with books, rugs, easels, bookcases and other materials to enable teachers to reconstruct literacy-rich classrooms. The initiative is also providing school principals with a contingency fund to meet the most crying needs of their community.

Tax deductible contributions can be made to Literacy Lifeboats at

“This effort cannot provide homes and roads, but it can help survivors remember that throughout history, people have used words to make sense of their lives, to reach for help, to reconstruct narratives of hope and resolve,” Calkins writes on the TC Reading and Writing Project website.

Adding to the power and reach of her own staff and of teachers around the country, Calkins has also recruited more than 30 “Literacy Partners” to her organization’s efforts – a group of well-known children’s authors and educators that includes Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales; John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and an expert on performance evaluation in education ; Lois Lowery, author of The Giver; Andrew Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education; and TC’s own Celia Oyler, Associate Professor of Education.

Without doubt, the need that Literacy Lifeboats seeks to address is overwhelming.

“We’ve heard stories about where the ocean came into school buildings, mixed with sewage, and contaminated everything, so that everything has had to be thrown out,” Calkins says. “Teachers are telling us about sobbing while going through treasured books, signed by the authors, and having to bag them and get rid of them.

“One school we work with, that was in a gorgeous facility out in Far Rockaway, had to relocate to a high school building elsewhere.  They had worked their hearts out to make their school a perfect learning environment, with an abundance of books – and now, in the temporary facilty, they told us that on the first day, they had just seven books to share with students.”

In many instances, the principals and teachers that the Reading and Writing Project is partnering with have themselves have been directly victimized by the storm and its aftermath. Like many other New Yorkers, Stacey Fell (Ed.D. ’05) , a former TCRWP staff member who now teaches eighth grade at the Tompkins Square Middle School in Manhattan’s East Village, and her husband and three young children spent days living without power, heat or running water in their tenth-floor apartment,  making daily trips up and down the stairs to get water from a fire hydrant. Eventually, they left in search of a hospital for Fell’s daughter, Cornelia, who had come down with a staph infection, and after a frightening car ride during which they were fortunate to find a working gas pump at a shuttered station,  ended up seeking refuge with other families from their building at a friend’s house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

“We were really among the lucky ones,” Fell says. “We were able to go back to our home in the end.”

Published Monday, Nov. 19, 2012


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