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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Winter 2008
Vol. 35 No. 1

Teaching from the Edge

Elizabeth A. Goodine

In the spring of 2006, Loyola University New Orleans re-opened following the worst “natural” disaster in United States history. Members of the university community, along with residents of New Orleans and citizens of the entire Gulf Coast region remained deeply wounded and acutely aware that it was “not over yet.” The sheer magnitude of the damage in New Orleans, caused not only by the storm but even more-so by the failure of the levee system that left eighty percent of our city under water for over six weeks, left us with environmental, economic, social and emotional problems that even the most insensitive of individuals could sense would plague us for years to come.
Even so, life had to go on, and so on it went. A variety of Katrina related courses were offered at Loyola that semester and as a member of the Religious Studies Department I was privileged to develop and offer a course entitled “Religious Responses to Katrina.” The goals and objectives of the course were two-fold: first, to examine the varied ways in which the faith of individuals and their understanding of God and his/her relationship to the world were affected by the disaster; and second, to examine the responses of religious organizations and thereby discern links between theology and practice.

My approach to the course involved four major segments. There would of course be a variety of readings1 accompanied by lecture, large and small discussion groups, and journaling. There would also be hands-on research into the topic. After all, we lived in our research field. Where better to study religious responses to disaster than New Orleans after Katrina! Ever an opportunist, I believed that even though disaster had befallen us we could make something good come out of it. A course like this could offer great opportunity for learning about disaster and human response. I knew that from the beginning. However, I greatly underestimated the opportunity this course would also offer for learning about teaching and the importance of relationships and emotional process in the classroom environment.

As in the designing of any course, I set out to create assignments that would meet the instructional goals. In order to meet my first objective, examining the disaster’s impact on faith, students were assigned the task of interviewing a survivor of the storm. This survivor would be someone who considered him/herself a person of faith. S/he would also be a person who had either stayed in the city throughout the calamity or who had evacuated but then returned to find significant, personal loss – such as the death of a relative or the loss of one’s home. The second objective, examining the response of religious organizations, was to be met by conducting an interview with a relief worker attached to a recovery agency operating under the auspices of a religious institution. Finally, since I knew, at least at some vague level, that the subject matter of this course coupled with the assignments could be highly emotional and since I hoped that students would throughout the course of the semester begin to process their own ideas about faith and the place of religion in society, especially during times of disaster, I decided to also require a personal project that would be designed by the student rather than by me. The project could take the form of a typical research paper or it could be the creation of a substantial piece of music, drama or art. The only requirements were that some aspect of the impact or importance of religion in the Katrina crisis be conveyed in depth and that the project be shared with the class in a ten-fifteen minute presentation.

 

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