An Unnatural Disaster: What Will Teachers Do?

Bree Picower
Date Published: 
September 8, 2005


Fall 2005


A house, swept off its foundation by rushing waters from a levy breech several blocks away, sits atop a truck in the ninth ward of New Orleans.
Photo: Reuters / J. P. Moczulski

By Bree Picower

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, grassroots activists in New York City galvanized to try to meet the needs of those affected as well as to respond politically to issues of race, power, and inequality that were so publicly and dramatically revealed in the recovery efforts.

As a teacher educator and teacher organizer, I wondered what classroom teachers would do. I also wondered about how I would help my student teachers think about the broader concerns of social injustice inherent in the two disasters of the hurricane and its aftermath.

Katrina hit the week before New York City public schools opened, and I wanted to have some materials ready for my new student teachers to help them think about how to address the catastrophe with elementary school children. I also wanted them to be able to analyze how their schools may or may not tackle the issues. I wanted them to understand that as educators we have a social responsibility to address issues of racism and inequality in order to help students develop the skills they need to struggle for social change.

After a search online of my typical progressive websites, I had found nothing deeper than "What is a hurricane?" Broadening my search, I found that, as often is the case, the political right was up and running and had developed some resources. The only site I found with any specific lesson plans ( included an activity called "Have I Got a Deal for You," designed to teach students about how looting is bad for the market economy. Another lesson centered on a speech by Thomas Edison in which he said, "There is something good about this disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. We can start anew." The lesson encouraged children to see the positive aspects of being able to "let go of the past and have a new beginning." The gross misrepresentation and disturbing bad taste of these lessons only underscored the need for teachers to help children make sense of the messages and images they were being bombarded with.

As a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE), I was lucky to have a network of teacher activists to turn to in this crisis of misinformation. We put forth a call to teachers to help us develop a curricular resource for educators to use to address the broader issues of racism, power, and privilege inherent in this "unnatural" disaster.

We wanted teachers to move past a service approach involving charity and fundraising to a framework of justice in which hard topics can be addressed. A group of teachers met the Sunday before school started and brainstormed topic areas such as the government's response, media literacy, inequality, links to the war in Iraq, and environmental injustice. The next several days were a blur of emails as we prepared to distribute the guide in order to get it into the hands of teachers by the first day of school. The finished guide, "An Unnatural Disaster: A Critical Resource Guide for Addressing the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the Classroom" is available at

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response we received from other progressive and radical teachers, these educators are not typical in their approach to teaching. I presented the curriculum to more than 80 student teachers at my university who had been in classrooms during the first days of school. None of them had been in a classroom where the teacher or students mentioned the issue that had captured the nation's attention for the last seven days. The preservice teachers themselves had believed that this was a "taboo" topic to discuss with children because it dealt with grief, tragedy, and politics—a belief that was reinforced in their school placements.

Those of us concerned with education for social justice need to continue to struggle to take back the idea of what schooling is supposed to be about. We must break through the idea that it is acceptable not to address major national events, that it is normal for teachers' words to be scripted, and that it is taboo for teachers and students to struggle together for social change.

Bree Picower (bree [at] nyu [dot] edu is a doctoral fellow and adjunct instructor at New York University and a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. (