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Katrina Curriculum: A Lesson In Promoting Dialogues About Race and Class

A new curriculum is set to launch this upcoming school year at Columbia University, Teachers College, based on Spike Lee’s HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”

A team of Teachers College (TC) faculty members, students, graduates and staff have created “Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement” to serve as a public education campaign to help adolescents, educators and community leaders promote dialogues about race and class in America. The curriculum is built on the grim realities of the racial and class dynamics portrayed in Lee’s film, which aired on HBO in August 2006 and showcased the painful experiences and aftermath of the tragedy of Katrina.

Teachers College Professor Margaret Crocco headed the team that designed the curriculum that was supported through a $975,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

“While ‘Teaching The Levees’ clearly originates from a sense of bewilderment and even outrage at the unaided suffering associated with Katrina, it does not preach,” says Crocco, a professor of social studies and education at TC. “There is enough ambiguity in the film to engage people in a dialogue that will lead to debates and different points of view. The teacher’s obligation is to create a climate in which that is possible.”

The curriculum will officially be launched at a special event titled, “Teaching The Levees: Lessons from Katrina,” on Sept. 6 at the TC Cowin Center at 4 p.m. in New York City. Panelists will include Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, Wisconsin education professor Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Princeton professor Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. and New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. This discussion, which will be moderated by New York Times Columnist Bob Herbert, will seek to answer the questions: “Who are we as a country?” and “Who do we want to be?”

The curriculum will be distributed by the TC Press free of charge to 30,000 high school, college and community educators, and civic and religious groups before the second anniversary of Katrina at the end of this month. It will include the DVD set of Lee’s film, a 100-page curriculum book that is supported by the Web site,, which is, among other things, a collection center for the names of people who want to receive the package.

“We developed ‘Teaching The Levees’ not as a text-only effort but as something that’s also online, interactive, community-oriented [and] media-enhanced,” says Maureen Grolnick, a TC consultant who is the manager of the project. “Eventually, teachers will be able to upload lesson plans, classroom projects and video clips related to their work with this curriculum.

“They will also be able to participate in the Web site discussion board and comment on the blog,” she added. “All these are resources that can be shared and that will give this work a more robust and timeless impact. And that sharing process itself will mirror the democratic discourse that our curriculum seeks to stimulate.”

The curriculum is divided into five categories of lessons: economics, civics, history, geography, and media literary. Some of the lesson topics include whether the low-lying areas should be rebuilt; a session on the convergence of space, race and poverty in the tragedy; New Orleans and its sense of place and home; the media’s coverage of the tragedy; and the issues relating to disaster preparedness or the lack thereof.

These lessons are designed to generate a reasoned discussion of divergent ideas that will ultimately lead to some action to advance the nation’s communities, Crocco says.

– Ibram Rogers

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