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Hurricane Katrina: Reading injustice, celebrating solidarity

By Linda Christensen

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.

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