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Teaching 'The Levees'

September 14, 2007

New_orleans_flooded "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. Whether that's pro or con is yet to be determined. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to do [the] film...."

-- filmmaker Spike Lee

Katrina made landfall on the morning of August 29, 2005, and by afternoon had caused major breaches of the levees in New Orleans at the 17th St. Canal, the London Avenue Canal, and the Industrial Canal, leaving 80 percent of the city under water.

Over the next few days, as images of unimaginable destruction and suffering were beamed to television sets around the world, Lee, who was attending a film festival in Italy, was outraged. "It was a very painful experience," he said later in an interview,

to see my fellow American citizens, the majority of them African-Americans, in the dire situation they were in. And I was outraged with the slow response of the federal government....

Lee returned to the States and, with backing from HBO's documentary unit, was in New Orleans with a crew by October, shooting footage of the devastation and conducting interviews with officials and residents of the city.

The result of those efforts, the Emmy-nominated When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, first aired on HBO in August 2006 and again this past August.

Earlier this month, Teachers College at Columbia University, in collaboration with HBO and the New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation, launched "Teaching The Levees: A Curriculum for Democratic Dialogue and Civic Engagement," a 100-page teaching tool developed by TC faculty, students, staff and alumni that is cued to Lee's documentary.

The curriculum, which is being distributed free of charge to 30,000 teachers nationwide, together with a DVD of the film, is divided into five components geared for high school, college, and adult audiences and features units on media literacy, civics, economics, geography, and history.

Ultimately, the aim of the project is to use the opportunity provided by the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to renew the American conversation on the subject of race and class and to provide an opening for dialogues that are central to the concept of democratic citizenship.

If you haven't seen the documentary (rated TV-14), I urge you to. And to learn more about the curriculum, New Orleans, or any of the many issues raised by Katrina, check out the "Teaching The Levees" Web site.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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