I meant to write and post this post last week, but Spring Break started and I just got back last night from my whirlwind trip to Minneapolis to visit K2, K3, M. and C, then up to visit my parents and Gram (who had a bad fall last week and broke her nose and wrist), and then I came back down to Lincoln last night. It's 9:15, I'm up, showered, my pot of Maritime Mist is a quarter emptied, and I've got my books in front of me so I can get some work done before classes start back up on Monday...
On Friday, my 150 students turned in their 2nd writing project, which was on the subject of how their community was shaped and affected by a natural disaster. (Click on the 150 page at the top of the blog to see the class overview.) We started the project with the idea that every community has a disaster story, somewhere in its history. Chicago and the Fire, San Francisco and the 1906 Earthquake, just to name two. My students initially struggled with thinking that their communities in Nebraska had a story like these, because they didn't know of any. And this stressed many of them terribly.
Eventually everyone found a topic and we started reading Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time, about the Dust Bowl, and David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard and Ted Kooser's Blizzard Voices, about the 1888 Children's Blizzard. My class is a William H. Thompson Scholars section (I have fourteen students in there right now), which means that all these students have won the WHT scholarship, one that goes to low income and first-generation students from Nebraska. So, most of my class comes from Lincoln or Omaha, though some come from other towns. Four or five chose to work on the 1975 Omaha tornado, I had one on the 1993 East Coast blizzard (this student was born during that blizzard in Georgia), one did the 2004 Jackson, NE tornado, another did the 2006 Arkansas tornadoes, and I also had one on the 1952 Misssouri River flood.
The project included many different components (some of which I was very nervous about, never having done these things before): they were required to do interviews (this, I'd done before), but I was nervous about the blog component. Because the focus of the project was to examine how their own community was affected by a natural disaster, I wanted them to use a platform that would serve their community. I envisioned links to these blogs from their local libraries and such, to be a resource for others. When I do this again, I like the blog aspect of it, but I know better how they work and what I need to do to ask students to reply meaningfully to their group members' blogs. (I'll also spend a day more specifically talking about what makes a blog a credible source, not just for their own research, but how to make their own blogs appear credible to others.) But the blog part did offer the opportunity for students to post YouTube videos of the disasters (if they found them) or articles they found. I did have them post their interviews, as well as their interpretations of their interviews.
Something I'll do differently next time: I'll more clearly point out how our texts (the Laskin and Egan) incorporated interviews--it was something I thought we'd covered well enough, but when I saw their rough drafts, apparently that was not the case. Another thing I'll do differently: making explicit connections between the Think Pieces they posted to their blogs (which offered some really excellent critical thinking and insights) and making sure that the students transfer those to their papers. Somewhere along the line, they seemed to think that they couldn't use their Think Pieces or other things they'd posted to their blogs in their paper.
The main problem I had in teaching this project was getting my students to think about how their community was affected by this disaster--and this is something that didn't pop clear for them until I handed back their rough drafts and gave my "I'm so disappointed" speech (and this is also where I spoke about them not using their blogs and in-class writings in their papers, because that was the point...). But between the rough draft and the final draft, things started to move: they started to understand what and who their community was--and they needed to get beyond the cliches of "we found out what we were made of" and "we all came together and helped out," because that's not the point.
I used north Minneapolis as an example: last summer, a tornado hit north Minneapolis, just blocks away from where my sisters, brother-in-law, and niece live. When I went back in February for C's birthday, there were still houses that had blue tarps for roofs. In Minnesota. In February. I let that image sink in, and then I continued: north Minneapolis is historically low income, historically African-American, and most people rent their houses. It makes a difference if you live in a trailer or a stick-built house when a tornado comes through. It makes a difference if you own your house or rent. It makes a difference if you have insurance or not.
My student who did the 1993 East Coast blizzard was the key here to making this clear for my students: it's not just a blizzard, it's a blizzard in a place that doesn't have blizzards. Georgia is largely rural and there's a lot of low-income families there. What happens if you lose power and you live in a trailer? What happens if you can't buy a thousand-dollar generator to power your house? The people who lived around him were predominantly low-income and predominantly retired. It makes a difference. And by the time they turned in their final drafts on Friday (which I haven't graded yet), this really started to become clear (so when I teach this again, I'm going to start this conversation much earlier). And I'm so proud of them, I can't stand it.
Here are a few moments from their reflections that I think are amazing (and since they posted these to their blogs, which are public, I'm not crossing any privacy boundaries):
- "The whole point of our class is to view disasters and not just to know they happened but how how they have impacted people. It's our job to not only learn about them but find ways to stop them from happening, finding ways to prevent them or just having a plan that when and if they happen we can come together as a community and help each other out."
- "Throughout writing this paper I realized that the whole point of this paper isn't necessarily an assignment to get us a good grade in the class, it's an assignment for us to realize history in the places we come from, and what we can do in the future to help our community. It's a paper to realize that not everyone gets the same help even if they experience the same disaster. It was a paper for us to realize that the community we live in is shaped by the certain people who live there. We all have a different story to tell and we all live different experiences. That is what makes us different from everyone else. And it's our duty to learn about our history because our history is a part of us as well."
- "Although this project was overall very stressful and difficult, it really gave me an opportunity to explore more of where I come from and even gave me the chance to meet a new family member. This project also I believe allowed me to come out of my shyness shell. The fact that I called and had a long personal conversation with a woman that I have never met in my life was actually a huge deal to me. If it was not for this project, I most likely would have never in my life taken that step."
- "I found out so much and my reaction was a subdued elation. I felt awesome, being able to bring my mother into my work. That was one of the most exciting things about this project. I was able to show my mom what I work on and the pride that she had was immense. I could hear it in her voice while we were doing interviews. Another thing that I really liked was being able to open up the lines of communication between my extended family. After we moved from Georgia, we never really talked. I was able to get past the past and everyone was all the more excited. Old ties of friendship were renewed and that is a big thing in a family like mine."
- "I learned more about my community and where I come from than I thought I would. It is weird to think that my grandfather and I both experienced a flood of the Missouri River. They were almost 60 years apart, but it was interesting to see how history can repeat itself. This sounds crazy, but I have learned more about Nebraska history in this English class than I have ever learned in any history class I have been enrolled in."
So, in hindsight, as much as I wanted to emphasize different ways of knowing and valuing those different experiences, I think I underestimated the value of doing the interviews and the value of the students interviewing family members. Not everything went as well as I wanted it to, but in the end, I'm really proud of my students and their progress and efforts, I have new ideas for the next time I teach this, and I'm really excited to start the next project on Monday, on human-caused disasters. And the truth is, I get more excited about what my students are doing and the conversations we've had this semester--and the conversations I know we will continue to have--every time I think about it.
Why I Love My Job, Thursday Edition.