Learning from my students

My students have been asking great questions, making cool connections, and finding quality resources.  Here’s a sampling of what they have been up to:

For some context, I assigned my students to read an article from the New York Times, titled Our Loss, Through The Eye Of The Storm.  It commemorated the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and made the point that “Because Hurricane Katrina isn’t over, we are a long way from fully understanding its effect on the region and its citizens, and on those of us in the rest of the country.”  The article is helping us explore the question of “what is history?” and how history intersects with memory.  When people along the Gulf Coast lost so much of their physical landmarks, did they also lose some of their history?

After reading that article, one of my students wondered how many people died in Katrina.  In her own words, she “got interested in the death toll so I looked online and I found this article about the controversy of the death toll during and after the hurricane.”  She found an article in the Houston Chronicle that says estimates of the death toll range from 1,464 (the number of victims officially recognized by the state of Louisiana), to 1,800, to as high as 3,500 — “if those killed by the storm and by its many after-effects are accurately tallied.”  Of the official 1464 victims, more than 500 names have not been publicly released.

The article she found also mentioned that “[i]n New Orleans, 31 unidentified victims’ bodies were buried in a $1.5 million monument in 2008.”  I wonder what the monument looks like (I found pictures of a few different memorial sites online — I’m not sure which one this article is referring to).

In an earlier class, we were discussing how the fossil record suggests that humans came out of Africa about two million years ago.  Another student got curious about race.  In her own words, she “was thinking about the evidence that everyone comes from Africa and the question you showed us from your other class (If we all come from Africa, why do we have different skin colors?) and I found an editorial written by Linda Beckerman, Ph.D.”   The article she found is titled “We’re ALL Black — According to Geneticists!” and it makes the point that:

The Human Genome Project (HGP) has determined unequivocally that there is the same amount of genetic variation among individuals within a so called racial group as there is between individuals in different racial groups. What that means is that there is no real genetic difference between blacks and whites or between whites and Asians or between any of the so called races.

I looked around online, and it turns out Professor Beckerman’s Ph.D. is in mechanical engineering, not one of the humanities fields… but she does make some solid points.  And it’s great to see students taking the dual initiative to first ask questions and then do some initial research to answer their own questions.

As a third example, I had showed my students the famous (around these parts it’s famous) clip of Christian Laettner’s last-second shot to beat Kentucky and send Duke to the Final Four in 1992. 

We talked about how different historians might view this event — A Duke historian would love it and write lots about it. A UNC historian would not care and be somewhat annoyed.  A Kentucky historian would really not like it.  And just to bring current events into the mix, a Pakistani historian would say “I don’t care about silly games — my country is 1/5 under water and millions are displaced and homeless… and if I did have time to care about games, we focus on cricket and field hockey.”

But one of my students noted that Pakistanis do have time to care about games — in fact, the country is in the midst of a huge cricket betting scandal.  My student emailed me an article from the BBC, titled Pakistani anger at another cricket scandal (from August 30).

He told me in class that people are so upset that they are naming donkeys after the players involved in the betting scandal, and pelting them with rotten tomatoes.  Now that’s an image that’s hard to forget:

The tomato-pelted donkeys show the importance people in Pakistan (and by extension, people in general) place on sports … and on making sure sports are played fairly and without scandals.  We will see similar scandals as far back as the ancient Greek Olympics.  I hope the donkeys get a nice bath after that ordeal …  might they be traumatized by the pelting? 

Speaking of things that are hard to forget, keep in mind, when thinking about Pakistan, that most of its inhabitants are Muslim, and are still fasting daily from dawn until sunset for the month of Ramadan.  The celebrations to end Ramadan this year will overlap with 9/11, and that could cause an anti-Islam backlash.  We’ll look more closely at that development as we get closer to 9/11 and the end of Ramadan, known as Eid ul-Fitr.

(note that this overlap won’t be an issue again for a while — the Islamic calendar is lunar, and it’s 10 days shorter than the solar calendar, so Ramadan next year will start about 10 days earlier and will run most of the month of August, 2011 — the Eid celebration will be around Sept 1).

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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