Teaching about Katrina

Enid Lee
Date Published: 
October 15, 2005


Teaching about Katrina

Transcript: Enid Lee, world renowned anti-racist, multicultural educator, speaks about integrating Hurricane Katrina in the classroom.

Part I: When you Raise Money Raise Questions

I would say that a teacher is making a statement about Katrina whether they say anything or not. That’s the first thing I’d like to highlight, that silence is a statement. So the question then becomes what would teachers like children to learn from that event and all the events that accompanied the hurricane and the death and the disaster. It's more about the kind of the questions educators could ask that will allow students to understand how Katrina happened.

  • What was done or not done by those who have power?
  • What was done around funding?
  • What was done around how the media portrays issues and events?
These questions will help students understand how Katrina happened. In fact, at one school I was in in New York around the time Katrina hit, the assignment this 5th grade class had was how did Katrina happen? What led to it? Not just when the storm hit, but what funding was cut with the levees? It’s less about teachers actually preaching to kids as opposed to asking them questions so kids do the research, find the answers and begin to understand how power works, how human made disasters happen and deprive people of their life and their livelihood. So the focus should be on what questions have to be posed and of course guiding students to find resources to complete the assignment.

Earlier on when everyone was talking about kids raising money, I summed it up by saying when you raise money, also raise questions. Raise questions about racism, raise questions about justice, raise questions about how decisions are made and what people do in the face of tragedy.

Part II: Lessons of History and of Hope

The Katrina disaster didn’t just blow away the houses it also blew the top off the racism that’s in this society. To me it was an example like no other because when you look at who was damaged, dispersed, who lost their homes, died, by and large we notice that they are African Americans. We notice that the ninth ward had the least support in getting fixed. It really just showed the disparity along the lines of race in this country. So the Katrina disaster really helps young people understand racism. Especially because many students I speak with think racism is something of the past, that is finished. Or they think of racism as something to do with the Klan and not institutionalized power; the way in which money is used, media gets to be distributed, how people in prison are treated if they’re skin is black and on top of that they’re poor. So in terms of understanding how racism works, Katrina is important.

The other piece is understanding what people can do about these kinds of disasters when they come together collectively to work at root causes. One of the things that hasn’t got out enough is the kind of coordinated valiant efforts that grassroots organizations, that people of color- particularly African Americans- made in trying to rescue themselves when they were abandoned by different levels of government. These are lessons both of history and of hope for students as they understand how all of this works. One of the things I would love to see somewhere is a listing of all the organizations that pulled themselves together to address Hurricane Katrina and continue to do so because it is not finished yet; there is the housing issue, there is the prison question, there is the fact that people are dispersed all over the country. It makes a very strong statement I feel, about the status, the state of people, particularly African Americans, in this country. It tells you how we are really seen by the government and also what place we have in this country and therefore the kinds of things that have to be done to expose that and change that. It’s big, it could be the lesson of the century in moving young people forward.

The Katrina disaster presents teachers with the chance to engage students in finding out about these things. Not so much telling them what to think, but just exposing them to issues and resources so they can come to their own conclusions. Even young kids can figure it out. They can ask, why are all the people that were left behind a certain color, or why were most of them?

Part III: Teaching Katrina and Meeting NCLB Standards

I found there were a number of articles in the Nation magazine* that had really concrete pieces of information that students can read. If they are too advanced they could be jigsawed and a whole group of kids could read them looking for specific things. For example, finding out how many people were in prison who just had unpaid parking tickets. Are they still there? You could do math out of these questions. You could look at the number of houses that are unoccupied, yet people have no where to live. The way I would see teachers using the information in articles and so forth, is building it into the curriculum, not as a unit on Katrina, but a source of materials that can help students develop the skills and knowledge that they need to have.

Right now every teacher is thinking about the implications of No Child Left Behind and the test we have to get youngsters ready for in May. Well some of those tests have to do with calculations, they have to do with compare and contrast, they have to do how language is used. You could use material about the Katrina disaster and its aftermath to do just that. I am thinking of a picture I saw in Santa Cruz where there were some young black men helping to rescue some people from their community. It had a title about looting and disorder. And when you read the caption you think but this is not what they are doing, they are trying to help. Those kinds of images, concrete factual information about current situations, also the hopeful piece around what people are doing. Like some people are using their Spring Break to go down as students, in much of the same way students organized during the freedom movement.

It is important to help students look for occasions when human beings are making a difference and getting at the root cause of a problem. It important for students to see examples of people of all backgrounds working together to create change. Those are the kind of lessons I hope we can draw from Katrina because it would put students in good stead for forecasting when the same kind of thing happens again. Students will be able to raise questions about why budgets are being cut, because one of the things we see is when resources aren’t applied, whether its schools or its housing or its hospitals, there are big holes in the system and people fall through the cracks.

The Katrina disaster is rich with learning for all subject areas, for all groups of kids, for any background. And you can build lessons from Katrina into standards so students can learn lessons that have great meaning.

*Articles on Katrina from The Nation
Eric Alterman. “Found in the Flood.” The Nation. September 26, 2005.
Eric Alterman. “New Orleans is Us.” The Nation. October 10, 2005.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “Looting the Black Poor.” The Nation. September 26, 2005.
Naomi Klein. “Needed: A People’s Reconstruction.” The Nation. September 26, 2005.
Naomi Klein. “Now the Real Looting Begins.” The Nation. October 10, 2005.
Eyal Press. “One Nation, Fragmented.” The Nation. October 10, 2005
Patricia J. Williams. “The View from Lott’s Porch” The Nation. September 26, 2005.