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How Can Schools Teach Citizenship? What Would That Really Look Like?


Margaret Crocco

TC Professor Margaret Crocco, Leader of The "Levees" Curriculum Project.

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
- George Santayana

The power of Spike Lee's four-hour HBO documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, is not simply its kaleidoscopic rendering of Hurricane Katrina and the enormity of its ongoing impact. The film also painfully captures the sense of Santayana's words, leaving viewers to ask: How could this happen in the richest nation in the world? What should we learn from this? What do we need to do differently next time?

"I think when we look back on this many years from now, I'm confident that people are gonna see what happened in New Orleans as a defining moment in American history," Lee said in an interview with HBO.

Now, with a grant of $975,000 provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, TC Professor Margaret Crocco and a team of the College's faculty, students, graduates and staff have designed a curriculum that explores precisely those questions and others that focus on issues of citizenship and social responsibility.

"Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement" - a package that includes the DVD set of Lee's film along with a 100-page curriculum book supported by online resources-'"is designed to facilitate "a conversation about a tough topic in a way that will bring participants to an understanding of some kind," says Crocco and provide them with a curriculum that will be "pertinent across time and place."

"We are trying to suggest this is not a problem only for New Orleans or our country," said Crocco. "The lessons exposed by Katrina and its aftermath have many historical parallels, from flooding, to earthquakes, to terrorist attacks, to name a few."

"Teaching The Levees" will be distributed by TC Press free of charge to 30,000 high school and college teachers, and community, civic and religious groups around the country in time for the second anniversary of Katrina. A Web site,, created and maintained by EdLab (a creative team within  Teachers College's Gottesman Libraries), provides background about the project and is the collection center for the names of people who wish to receive the package. Eventually, however, the site will play a much larger role.

"We developed - 'Teaching The Levees' not as a text-only effort but as something that's also online, interactive, community-oriented, media-enhanced-'"and the EdLab team is making that all real," says Maureen Grolnick, a TC consultant who is manager of the "Teaching The Levees" 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. 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 creators worked in several teams to produce five categories of lessons, including economics, civics, history, geography, media literacy and lessons for community, civic and religious groups. "We focused on the questions: -'Who are we as a country?', - 'Who do we want to be?'" Crocco explains. Every lesson, in fact, is structured around a big question related to some aspect of the film.

For example, a section on a previous flooding disaster that befell New Orleans explores changing notions of leadership and federal responsibility in disaster scenarios. In 1965, when Hurricane Betsy hit the area, President Lyndon Johnson visited the devastated Ninth Ward quickly, flashlight in hand, to reassure the residents that help was on the way. To a large extent, the value of his appearance was more symbolic than substantive-'"the burden of survival still rested largely on the shoulders of each individual citizen. It would not be until 1979, under President Jimmy Carter, that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) would be created to respond to natural disasters within the 50 states.

Yet the performance of FEMA in the aftermath of Katrina underscores the reality that a bureaucracy is no substitute for personal response. In New Orleans, with minimal public transportation and one of the nation's lowest per capita rates of car ownership, too many individuals did not hear or were not able to respond to Mayor Ray Nagin's call to evacuate the city. A few days later, as Lee's film points out, President Bush flew over the city to see the damage but kept a speaking appointment in California about the war in Iraq. While the cries of the city leaders for federal aid were going unanswered for more than a week, the Vice President was fly-fishing, the head of Homeland Security was at a conference on diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Georgia, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was shopping for shoes in New York City.

Other topics addressed in the "Teaching The Levees" project include the question of whether the low-lying areas should be rebuilt as well as a lesson on how space, race and poverty converge in this tragedy; New Orleans and its sense of place and home; media coverage of the events surrounding the hurricane; and the idea of disaster preparedness and the problems related to not being prepared for such events.

Each lesson is designed to encourage groups to gather information that produces "democratic dialogues." Crocco says, "We want an honest debate about these issues." Reasoned discussion should ultimately lead to some type of action, she adds. For example, some lessons encourage teachers and students to investigate their own community's disaster plan or to do something that signals a sense of responsibility to others in the community.

In addition to lesson plans, supplementary curriculum materials and resources for professional development are being developed in collaboration with EdLab for the "Teaching The Levees" project Web site. Others who are preparing materials for the project include Gregory Thomas, Deputy Director of Planning and Response in the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; Diana Hess, who has taught about the teaching of controversial issues; Milton Chen, Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation; and Jane Bolgatz, author of the book Talking Race in the Classroom.

"Teachers often don't bring up topics of race in the classroom - it's part of the evaded curriculum," Crocco says. "With a well-prepared teacher, you might get more debate about sensitive problems."

In order to ensure that the material in the package is relevant to the issues raised, an advisory board consisting of experts in different areas related to the curriculum has reviewed the lessons and provided feedback for the teams. The board includes Hess, Bolgatz, and Thomas; Douglas Brinkley, an historian from Tulane University and author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin whose expertise is teaching about race; Henry Louis Gates, The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University; and historians Emily Clark and Sylvia Frey at Tulane University.

Preliminary curriculum ideas were vetted by focus groups held at the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies in December 2006, where several teachers volunteered to "test drive" the material in their own classrooms once it is finalized.

"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," Crocco says.

"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."  
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