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Mind the Gap: Big Easy Ramblings

An inner-city schoolteacher visits post-Katrina New Orleans with his students.

Greetings from New Orleans, where I’ve come with two of my colleagues and a dozen of my students to participate in post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. We’re more than halfway through our weeklong stay here, and our community-service project has been a learning experience for all involved. My students will share their thoughts next week, and I’ll share my initial observations this week.

Lesson One: There’s no substitute for on-the-ground experience.

Over the last four months, we've been learning about New Orleans during a weekly afterschool class. As effective as those lessons were in prepping our students for what they would encounter down here, the ride from the airport alone surpassed all emotional preparation.

We drove past shuttered schools, including one that still—still!—had a notice for a September, 2005, event posted on its display board. We drove by innumerable abandoned homes tagged with the spraypainted "X" of rescue crews who searched for Katrina’s victims. All the while, our elderly driver told of his 19-hour drive to evacuate the city.

Similar stories followed. A couple that spent two years living out of a motel room with their 1-year-old daughter. A Tulane University student and New Orleans native who has only driven through his flood-ravaged neighborhood a handful of times because he breaks down in tears. A 70-year-old man who still grieves the family heirlooms lost to 11 feet of water in his house.

The weight these personal stories carry when conveyed face-to-face is without peer. My colleagues and I can design the most engaging lesson imaginable, but we can never measure up to the community leader who started an afterschool program in the nineties and heroically still champions the Ninth Ward.

Over a thousand people dead, over a million people displaced—important facts and impressive numbers that pale in comparison to the impact of on-the-ground experience.

Lesson Two: Educating students out of the classroomand out of the cityis invaluable.

Yesterday, one of our students plodded through the muck of a shallow swamp in a rural area outside the city. While she lives in a six-story apartment house in the South Bronx, at the moment she found herself up to her boot-clad shins in mud, dirt caked onto her capris, water splattered across her back. “I’ve never been this dirty in my life,” she said, before pausing to evaluate her condition and shrug. “I like it.”

Whether our students develop an admiration for or an aversion to Mother Nature, I find value in them making her acquaintance. I believe in our students acquiring a wide range of experiences, and this project has provided many firsts for our students—first flight, first boat ride, first Wal-Mart visit, first bite of alligator (and deer) meat, first use of a drill, first NBA game and so on. In this age of teaching to the test, our school project has provided our students with an array of new experiences and situations that broaden their horizons and increase their cultural awareness.

The world of liberal intellectuals I grew up in was always voicing a desire to take young people and turn them into global citizens. Our politicians and pundits speak of increasing interdependence internationally and the need to be culturally fluent. Yet these expectations do not seem to extend to inner-city schoolchildren.

Our project has taken a step toward making our students more well-rounded and preparing them for a wider breadth of experiences.

Taking students out of the classroom has also provided a heart-warming opportunity to witness them making connections between what they have already learned in school. One of our students saw a Muslim woman dressed in traditional clothing and made a connection to Reading Lolita in Tehran. Another student talked about how World War II seemed much more real after he saw a veteran’s tombstone during a walk through one of New Orleans’s above-ground cemeteries.

Every experience becomes a teachable moment when students get out of the classroom and into the real world.

Lesson Three: The havoc wrought by Katrina is unabated in parts of New Orleansand you can help.

We’ve spent most of the week in St. Bernard Parish, an area on the outskirts of New Orleans that was declared 100 percent uninhabitable after post-Katrina flooding plundered the area’s residences. Various people in power have paid more attention to the Lower Ninth Ward than to St. Bernard Parish, but both low-income and low-lying areas were—and still are—decimated by flooding. Unfortunately, the passage of time has had little correlation with the rehabilitation of homes and the restoration of services.

If you have the time to spare, come down here. At our volunteer complex, two college students—one who graduated early and one who is taking a semester off—have committed to a month of service. At their side is an assortment of AmeriCorps volunteers who work diligently to facilitate reconstruction efforts. And school groups like ours volunteered with the St. Bernard Project.

If you can’t consider giving your time, give your money. Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation is doing striking work in the Lower Ninth Ward. Habitat for Humanity is rock-steady in its rebuilding efforts. Teach for America-Greater New Orleans and the other innumerable education reform programs that have inundated the city are worth supporting as well.

The point is that NOLA is still very much in need. Contributing in some way to the reconstruction efforts is mutually beneficial.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays. His prior essay about his trip to New Orleansand how he raised the money to do itcan be gotten here.

Photographs courtesy of Lowe.

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