Reading injustice, celebrating solidarity
Illustrator: Dave Martin
When Hurricane Katrina exploded across the South, tearing up levees, drowning people who couldn’t afford to escape her wrath, and exposing the way the U. S. government treats the poor, especially those who are black and poor, I put my curriculum plans on hold.
It didn’t feel right to watch this destruction on the nightly news and turn away from it during school hours. I wanted my students to see past the images of the hurricane blowing down buildings and to question how our country could allow this devastation to occur. I wanted them to learn to find and analyze facts about contemporary tragedies, to ferret out patterns of actions that continue to produce injustice and inequality.
But injustice wasn’t the only story that surfaced. Through the chaos and the crisis, through the lies and the deaths, a counter narrative emerged: the story of how everyday people worked together to help each other when their government failed. Of course, as often happens when good intentions enter the classroom, my goals for this unit did not play out as fully as I intended.
Critically Reading Pictures
The lessons on Katrina started before students hit my class. My students might live on the opposite side of the country from Katrina’s destruction, but they watched as people signaled for help from rooftops and crowded into the Superdome. My Oregon students tried to make sense of the situation. A few had family in the region. Most were concerned and worried, but when I heard them talk, I realized that some students were absorbing racist perceptions from their TV viewing. One student said, “The white people left. Why didn’t the black people leave?” An unstated but humming accusation lingered. The question prompted me to find readings, graphs, and interviews that would help explore the crisis.
My sophomores and juniors at an urban Portland high school were a bouquet of colors and a garden of attitudes, about one third were black or Latino. They didn’t choose to be in my class; they were placed in “regular English” because they didn’t sign up to be in honors or AP English. Many of them struggled with reading and writing; about a third of them spent at least one period of the day in special education classes or had a caseworker; others had sophisticated literacy skills but had disengaged from school for a variety of reasons. Any lesson I brought to my class needed to work on developing reading and writing strategies for this diverse group.
I started our investigation the way I begin many units: I put a photograph on the overhead. For this unit, I used the now-famous Associated Press (AP) photos “White People Find/Black People Loot” [www.snopes.com/katrina/photos/looters.asp]. I covered the captions. Both photographs show people moving through high water and carrying supplies. The photo of the two white people reads, “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans.” The caption for the photo of the African-American man read, “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.” (See previous page.) I told students that we were about to embark on a lesson in critical reading. I asked them to examine the photograph of the two whites and then write a brief description of what they saw. After a few students shared their descriptions, I asked them to repeat the process with the second photograph.
I divided students into small groups, gave them a large piece of chart paper, asked them to share their descriptions with each other, and then had each group write a caption for each picture. (I had to teach what a caption was and give examples.) After groups shared their captions, I uncovered the AP captions one at a time and read them. We discussed the difference between “find” and “loot.” Most students were taken aback by racist overtones of the two captions, but several white students began defending them. “Maybe the photographer saw the black man looting . . . We don’t know the whole story . . . This is taken out of context . . . Maybe there is a reason.” Students noted that different photographers took each photo, so there must have been an explanation.
I have to pause here and say that after teaching for 23 years at a predominantly African-American school and now teaching at a predominantly white school, that many of my white students seem to experience discomfort when addressing contemporary race issues. The past is fine: Slavery was bad. Japanese-American internment was a mistake. My initial reaction was to lecture students about racism. This was a very ineffective strategy. Students have to come to their own conclusions after investigating events. The students’ conclusions made me feel uneasy, and certainly left a tension between black and white students that I didn’t want at the beginning of the year. Ideally, I would have had time to build a community beforehand where students could get to know each other and challenge each other’s assumptions before tackling sensitive issues.
After our initial discussion about the photos, I asked students to list what they’d heard, read, or viewed about what was going on in New Orleans: Flooding. People on rooftops. People escaping in boats. Rape in the Superdome. Looting in the stores. Levees breaking. Death. Students wanted to know who was responsible. As the days rolled on, it became increasingly clear that what started as a hurricane and a natural disaster was exacerbated by a profound failure of the local, state, and national governments to protect some people. The unfolding of promises made and broken, reports ignored, and money channeled for other uses stacked up like innocent dead in New Orleans.
One problem with teaching Katrina was the abundance of materials generated daily. How could I choose which articles to teach? I finally decided to focus on two aspects of the story: The role of poverty and race in the evacuation and media portrayal, and the emergence of everyday heroes. Through Katrina I attempted to teach students to question the basic assumptions of our society that legitimate the race and class inequality they viewed, read, and listened to in the media portrayals. I also chose to highlight collective action as well as the deeds of everyday folks who sacrificed their own comfort and safety to help others. In this way, I could blend critique with hope.
Criminals or Heroes?
To tackle the aspect of how race and poverty affected the evacuation, I downloaded Ira Glass’s interview with Denise Moore, who was at the Convention Center, on This American Life: After the Flood (www.thislife.org/pages/archives/ archive05.html). We returned to the idea of “looting” in this interview. Before we started listening, I asked students to take notes on questions based on our previous discussions: Why didn’t Denise Moore evacuate? What happened at the Convention Center? Why did she say she respected the “criminals” and “looters”? What other questions did the piece leave you with?
Moore’s story begins by tackling the view of lawlessness awash after the flood. In her opening lines she said, “I kept hearing the word ‘animals,’ and I didn’t see animals. We were trapped like animals, but I saw the greatest humanity I’d ever seen from the most unlikely places.” And this theme carried through her entire interview. Students had heard that women and children were being raped and people were killing each other in the Superdome, but Denise Moore’s interview explained again and again how people tried to survive. How they helped and protected each other while they waited in vain for the buses to arrive, how they divided up what little they had to give to those in greater need — especially young children and the elderly.
Glass asked the same questions many of my students asked: What about the violence at the Superdome? Moore responded by telling about the “thugs” who organized looting in order to bring necessities back to people who were stuck inside:
But somehow these guys got together, figured out who had guns and decided they were going to make sure that no women were getting raped — because we did hear about women getting raped in the Superdome — and that nobody was hurting babies. And nobody was hurting these old people. They were the ones getting juice for the babies. They were the ones getting clothes for people who had walked through that water. They were the ones fanning the old people, because that’s what moved the guys, the gangster guys the most, the plight of the old people…. They started looting on St. Charles and Napoleon. There was a Rite-Aid there, and you would think they would be stealing stuff, fun stuff or whatever, because it’s a “free city” or whatever, according to them, right? But they were taking juice for the babies, water, beer for the older people, food, raincoats so they could all be seen by each other. You know, I thought it was pretty cool and very well organized.
After we listened to the interview, students talked about what they learned: Moore explained that she hadn’t left New Orleans because she didn’t have a car, because her mother was essential personnel at Memorial Hospital and hospital employees and their families could stay there, and because they didn’t want to divide the family. From Moore, students gained a greater understanding of the complexities of leaving behind family and home, but also how the lack of cars and money for gas and lodging were barriers for poor people.
To underscore this point even more, I also brought in an article and graph from the New York Times, “What Happens to a Race Deferred,” by Jason DeParle [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/04/weekinreview/04depa.html). This piece showed the distribution of poverty and cars by race. As DeParle wrote:
No one was immune, of course…. But the divides in the city were evident in things as simple as access to a car. The 35 percent of black households that didn’t have one, compared with just 15 percent among whites.
“The evacuation plan was really based on people driving out,” said Craig E. Colten, a geologist at Louisiana State University and an expert on the city’s vulnerable topography. “They didn’t have buses. They didn’t have trains.”
The graphic representation of the number of people without cars was a powerful counter to the question, “Why didn’t they just leave?” I attempted to push this discussion by asking how much it would cost for hotel rooms, gas, and food. Then we looked at the number of people in New Orleans who live on less than $9,000 a year. (I found this in an outstanding collection of articles assembled by the New York Collective of Radical Educators, An Unnatural Disaster: A Critical Resource Guide for Addressing the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Classroom — www.nycore.org.
Through Moore’s interview and later readings, many students began to gain clarity around what could have happened: organized transportation and evacuation.
Solidarity from Unexpected Places
The next article we explored, “Trapped in New Orleans” [www.counterpunch.org/bradshaw09062005.html], was written by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two San Francisco emergency medical services (EMS) workers who were attending an EMS conference in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. They spent most of the next week trapped by the flooding. Slonsky was also interviewed on This American Life: After the Flood, but I wanted students to read as well as listen. Bradshaw and Slonsky’s article echoed many of the themes in Denise Moore’s interview: people left to die and fend for themselves, the lack of response from officials. They also described the sheriffs’ racist reaction to people trying to escape the flooding. They repeat Moore’s account of shots fired at them as they attempted to cross the Greater New Orleans Bridge:
We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. [Armed sheriffs] responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: If you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.
Bradshaw and Slonksy also underscored heroic collective action in their article. Their listing of heroes and their acts of courage mirrored Denise Moore’s stories of the men in the Superdome:
[W]hat we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.
The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured, and kept the generators running… Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, “stealing” boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food-service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.
As students read the article, I asked them to highlight in one color ways people worked together and in another color surprises and outrages. After reading the article, students wrote one paragraph about each topic. We used these writings to prompt our discussions about the parallels between Bradshaw and Slonksy’s experiences and Denise Brown’s. The stories of people “liberating” water and creating camps engaged students:
Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let’s hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.
Now — secure with these two necessities, food and water — cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
Like the Denise Moore interview, “Trapped in New Orleans” provoked discussion about the conditions that allowed people to work together:
This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.
The articles and media coverage of Katrina’s devastation and the government response to it provided an opening into a year-long investigation of the structural and political inequalities that continue to plague our country. By “reading” Katrina, I wanted students to learn to ask questions, to figure out how to probe for the patterns of injustice that they would see when we studied language and literature for the rest of the year.
While Hurricane Katrina exposed structural inequities that left — and continue to leave — poor people and people of color in tragic circumstances, Moore, Bradshaw, and Slonsky’s stories also held out hope that ultimately we can count on each other in hard times. As Denise Moore said, “I saw the greatest humanity I’d ever seen from the most unlikely places.” While I certainly want students to learn how to critique, I also want them to find those places where our humanity flowers. Not just because it feels good, but because collective action and acting on behalf of others instead of out of selfish motivations is where hope for change abides.
In his article “Unsung Heroes,” Howard Zinn discusses the need for us to find alternative heroes.
Should we not replace the portraits of our presidents, which too often take up all the space on our classroom walls, with the likenesses of grassroots heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper? Mrs. Hamer was evicted from her farm and tortured in prison after she joined the Civil Rights Movement, but she became an eloquent voice for freedom. Or with Ella Baker, whose wise counsel and support guided the young black people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the militant edge of the civil rights movement in the Deep South?… Our country is full of heroic people who are not presidents or military leaders or Wall Street wizards, but who are doing something to keep alive the spirit of resistance to injustice and war.
I asked students to think about their everyday heroes as a way to make a connection between their lives and the heroes who emerged during the hurricane. While few had examples of the collective action witnessed in New Orleans or even the alternative heroism that Zinn explores, most could find parents, siblings, grandparents, or coaches who work daily, making sacrifices to help others. I try to find an opening writing activity at the beginning of each year that brings stories or poetry about my students’ families, cultures, and heritage into the classroom. I do this so I can learn more about my students, but also because I want students to know that their families matter; they count. I also want them to begin looking for the heroes with a small “h.”
I shifted into this lesson by talking about my mother. I put a chart (posted with this article at www.rethinking schools.org) on the overhead and spoke about how my mother was one of my everyday heroes because she frequently put aside her own needs to take care of our family. I wanted to model the use of specific examples: My niece Kelly had Tourette’s syndrome, and school was painful for her. Mom picked Kelly up daily, took her for walks on the beach, patiently worked with her on her multiplication tables, and created a place where Kelly felt safe and loved.
Many students were talking about Kanye West’s remark on live television during the American Red Cross flood relief concert that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” so I played “Hey, Mama” from Kanye West’s CD Late Registration. West’s beautiful song is a tribute to his mother. After listening to the song and reading the lyrics, students discussed specific examples from his song: made him chicken soup, never put a man over him, taught him to ride a bike.
Frankly, I also wanted to work on students’ writing skills. Too often, when students write about their parents or grandparents, as well as other topics, they lapse into vague generalizations, piling on phrases like “She was always there for me,” “She had my back.” To prevent that from happening, I put the phrase, “She was there for me” on the overhead. I said, “Imagine that someone wrote this about your person; what examples could you give me so that I believed you.” Students shouted out examples: She came to my games. She made dinner every night. She read to me when I was little. She hugs me when I’m sad. I didn’t use the chart with their answers to steer students into five-paragraph essays about their heros; the discussion simply provided “wetland” for students to catch ideas while they brainstormed.
In most writing assignments, I give students one or more models so they know what I’m looking for. We read “Abuelita,” the profile my former student Alejandro Vidales wrote about his grandmother. Students highlighted in one color the physical description and in another color the ways she helped him. Students filled in a description of his grandmother on the chart. They also filled in examples on the chart of why he paid her tribute.
Students listed their heroes on their charts and shared them with the class. The talk took time but spawned better writing because students expanded their initial ideas and went deeper as they elaborated stories with their classmates.
Most students wrote about their mothers or grandmothers; a few wrote about their fathers, siblings, coaches, or teachers. We read these aloud in class. Some were humorous, but most were serious — and sometimes emotional — tributes to the people who toil daily without reward to help others.
Daniel Collins wrote about his grandmother, “Pastor Mary H. Smith, also known as my grandmother, is the greatest person alive today.” Daniel’s grandmother “has gold teeth, wears glasses, is a good dresser, keeps her hair whipped.” Daniel’s tribute to his grandmother came back to our discussions of New Orleans:
After Hurricane Katrina struck in and around the New Orleans area, she sold our vacation home in Phoenix. With the money that came from the vacation home and the money from her bank account, she rented hotels and apartments for about 10 families she was going to bring from New Orleans and small towns around that area. After their arrival, she supplied the ones that didn’t have food stamps with food.
Daniel’s grandmother and her church raised money to help those left homeless in the wake of Katrina’s devastation and the government’s inept response.
Josh Langworthy’s tribute to his foster mother, Michelle McCallister, and his honesty cracked open my junior class. Josh acted hard; he got angry easily, and he constantly tapped something — fingers, toes, pencils, stapler — but Josh risked his tough guy image when he shared his essay with the class:
Freshman year was one heck of a year. Almost every day I got a new referral. I don’t know what Michelle was thinking, but she put up with me. That year Mr. Chetard [the vice principal] had my home number on speed dial. And even though I was always in trouble, Michelle decided to take my brother and me to Disneyland for the first time. We had never been there before because in a childhood like ours, you don’t even daydream about going someplace like that. Michelle and Rick (my foster dad) paid for the whole thing out of their own pockets.
Josh’s openness encouraged others to share honestly. (See www.rethinking schools.org for Josh’s full essay.) He provided that break that moved us from a class to a safe place where we could talk about real problems and real issues.
No doubt, there will be more Katrinas, more injustice, more opportunities for us to drop our curriculum and read the news. But as we do that, I hope we couple those critical readings with lessons that celebrate the unlikely heroes in our students’ lives and allow students time to practice working together and constructing a community.