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Houston Teacher's Reading Group Comforts Students in Hurricane Aftermath

Harvey-Shelter-Convention-Center-blog.jpgAs torrential rains and destructive flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey continue to plague the Houston area, and schools remain closed until at least after Labor Day, one teacher is using books to bring her district together in the midst of the storm. Kathryn Butler Mills, a 2nd grade teacher at WoodCreek Elementary in Katy, Texas, created a public Facebook group on Sunday to encourage kids to read as they wait out the hurricane.

The Hurricane Harvey Book Club, which features videos of students, teachers, and authors reading their favorite books aloud, started with invites to 70 of Mills' students, fellow educators, and friends. The group had swelled to more than 27,000 members as of Wednesday morning, and that number continues to grow. Mills started the group as a way to take students' minds off of the situation and encourage them to keep reading. Group members are now writing in with encouraging messages to stay safe and strong.

Mills spoke to Education Week by phone from her Columbus, Texas, home Tuesday morning, where the waters were high enough to make her feel as though she were "on an island." The roads flooded as dams and reservoirs spilled over. "It's just a waiting game right now," said Mills. "But our houses are safe and we are safe, even if we can't get out."

She said she is faring better than many of those in her school district. Katy, Texas, which is experiencing record flooding, is about 45 miles from her home. A federal emergency-management task force was dispatched to assist the suburb on Sunday with rescues. Shelters have opened at area high schools to assist residents who have been displaced by the storm with food and a place to sleep. Mills has heard from friends and other teachers who have had to evacuate their flooded homes, including one who was seeking a boat.

After seeing pictures of many of her former and present students taking shelter in pantries and bathrooms and under staircases, she felt moved to "get normal to them in a non-normal circumstance," she said. As the page notes, it's "about love, community, encouragement, and a big dose of bravery."

The early Facebook posts were mostly by students and teachers from the district. Now hundreds of students from other states, as well as teachers, authors, newscasters, and others have shared videos—in English and Spanish, in the dark, in bedrooms and living rooms, and even in song. An Alabama teacher and her students read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Author Coert Voorhees shared his book Storm Wrangler, which he wrote after Hurricane Ike in 2008. Mills and others in the group have also reached out to sports stars, Ellen DeGeneres, and other famous personalities about doing something on the page.

Another district teacher used the group to a suggest a book drive. While district officials haven't yet been able to assess the extent of the damage to school buildings, several school facilities have flooded, including the district's board room. Many are wondering about the school libraries.

Hurricane Harvey, originally a Category 4 storm, touched down last Friday near Rockport, Texas, and was downgraded to a tropical storm once it reached Houston. Houston had experienced 40 inches of rainfall as of Wednesday, and 13 deaths have been reported so far, according to the New York Times. 

"The thing that surprises me the most is the size and the reach of it," Mills said. "How people are coming together and supporting each other is not a surprise. Even though Katy ISD is a huge city with so many employees, it really becomes small-town. It boils down to the connection that we have with one another."

Another literary initiative in the wake of the hurricane is KidLit Cares, an online auction to benefit the Red Cross relief efforts. Author and educator Kate Messner, who organized a similar effort after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is auctioning off nearly 200 literary-themed items donated by editors, authors, and agents, such as school visits with authors, signed books, manuscript critiques from agents and editors, and even a classroom Skype call from Chelsea Clinton. Messner, a former middle school teacher and the author of dozens of children's books, raised more than $35,000 for Hurricane Sandy and, according to her website, hopes to replicate the support for those in affected by the Texas storm.

Photo credit: Children and adults wait to get into the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston on Aug. 29, after being forced to evacuate their homes during Tropical Storm Harvey.
--LM Otero/AP


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