Hurricane Katrina in the Classroom

Ira Katznelson, professor of political science and history at Columbia University writes in response to what he describes as the “racial pattern of poverty” witnessed graphically during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “A full generation of federal policy, lasting until the civil rights legislation and affirmative action of the 1960s, boosted whites into homes, suburbs, universities and skilled employement while denying the same or comparable benefits to black citizens.”( Washington Post October 3-9, 2005 Weekly Edition). He suggests that “we would do better in present circumstances to return to the ambitious plans Johnson announced but never realized to close massive gaps between black and whites, and between more and less prosperous blacks.”

Many educators suggest that one way to “close the achievement gap” is to critically discuss current events such as Hurricane Katrina in the classroom. The theory is that education content for marginalized students should include topics on “real world” social injustices in order to empower and prepare students to take on critical and activist roles in society. However, talking about these issues can create controversial and emotional responses between students and educators.

Considering these challenges, I ask: Do you think educators should bring Hurricane Katrina into the classroom even if it brings up feelings of discomfort and emotions that students and teachers might not be able to predict? Do you think there is a tendency to shy away from “real” dialogues in classrooms because the inequalities are so severe and because teachers and students rarely claim to share the same points of view? Do you think that there is a political tide that censors critical thinking in the classroom?

I am also curious about how we can make each other more comfortable discussing the “raw deal” that has historically affected our education system, our students, and our communities?

Adrienne Palacios, Human Resources Officer for the United Nations, says that these critical conversations should also take place in predominantly “white” schools and organizations because they are the ones who might be more affected by the media that distorts the role of black and poor people in society.

So, I ask, is there a difference between how we present Hurricane Katrina to a predominantly black or minoritized audience as compared to a predominantly white audience? Is there a difference if the students are wealthy or poor? What about the educator? Is the educators’ ability to address these issues affected by their own race or class?

3 responses to “Hurricane Katrina in the Classroom”

  1. Elana Avatar

    Because I only have a moment in which to write, I simply want to emphasize the necessity that human beings be able to connect viscerally and emotionally with what they must learn in regard to the struggles of all people, and people who are different from themselves. This is the only way we will change. Denial makes learning much more of a challenge.

  2. Adrienne Avatar

    Just to clarify…my view is not to limit Hurricane Katrina discussions to just predominately white classrooms – quite the contrary, it is more of a two-prong approach: 1) for educators to mobilize and empower students of color by presenting critical topics of social injustices, such as the Katrina aftermath, and prepare students to assume a more activist role in the hopes of “closing the achievement gap,” 2) for educators to ensure that students in classrooms where racial diversity is limited or non-existent, engage in polemical and social conversations to promote honest dialogue and consciousness raising in the hopes of “closing the ignorance gap.” The event of Hurricane Katrina is one of lives lost and property destroyed, but the story of race and class inequities exposed by the storm’s destruction drew far less coverage in the news media – on both a macro and micro level. I was in Sierra Leone when Katrina hit, and I was abruptly confronted with a number of white international staff, many of whom never met a person of color until they arrived in Sierra Leone, posing questions such as “why do black Americans always loot during times of crisis?” or “Why didn’t ‘they’ just evacuate?” What can we deduce if, globally, people are projecting views based on a superficial understanding perpetuated by a skewed media and/or limited exposure to multiculturalism? Asking the hard questions and promoting dialogue- at all levels – is key to continued intellectual, emotional and spiritual development. It is consciousness raising at its best.

  3. Tania Avatar

    Not only should educators discuss the issues of race and class embedded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina despite the feelings of discomfort and emotions that it will stir, I think they should discuss it because of this probable reaction. The sensitivity that such a political dialogue could evoke is a critical clue suggesting that the issue is a present one. We don’t see students outraged when discussing Great Britain burning the White House and severely devastating the northeast coast in the War of 1812, because the problem is no longer present. We unveil a greater sensitivity in the classroom when discussing, for example, the Civil Rights Movement, a time that addressed problems that still idle in present day society. The tendency to shy from such dialogue rests not so much in the conflicting views between Teacher and Student, but more in attempting to avoid those same feelings of discomfort and emotions that may arise. Teachers today tend to avoid bringing up such touchy subjects to protect their own political liability and also mind the fact that they are being paid to present a certain curriculum in a certain amount of time. If students reacted emotionally to that which was being taught, it would disrupt the goals of the teacher and the fluidity within the classroom. With respect to Ms. Palacios’s perspective, I think it is important that these critical conversations are greeted by every ethnicity, not just Whites. What would be the latent effects of directing these issues at just one group? It points a finger, it excludes and isolates, and ultimately perpetuates the problem. It would be just as fruitless as saying abortion issues should only be targeted at females, when the ethics of the problem goes far beyond that.


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