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Starting With What You Know ...


“Start with what you know to learn what you don’t know.
Start with where you’re at to get to where you want to go.”

That’s the motto we work by in Students at the Center (SAC), the school/community-based writing program a few students and I started in the late 1990’s.

I must confess, however, that I often drop the motto’s second line. Maybe my 20 years as a classroom teacher has numbed me to the idea of going anywhere. Certainly the way New Orleans figures so prominently in SAC writing for community projects has a lot to do with it. When Katrina hit, we were about to finish The Long Ride, a book of student writings about struggles for civil rights and social/racial/economic justice in New Orleans. Our students were touring a play they had written about the connections between the community organizing that propelled the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in the 1890’s and their own community organizing around education quality and rights. I wasn’t just teaching in my birthplace; New Orleans was what I was teaching.

So on Monday, August 29, when Katrina came calling, I knew where I was at and wasn’t giving much thought to where I wanted to go. I knew if we were hit really badly and the waters rose, I may be holed up in the sturdy old American Can Company (now an apartment complex where my girlfriend’s father was living) for a week or so.

Of course, that projection was way too optimistic. By the end of the storm week, after boating through toxic slime lake water, squinting to see my block from an evacuation helicopter, sleeping on a discarded cardboard box on I-10 and Causeway, and freezing toward Texas on a bus blasting its air conditioner in the middle of the night to keep the driver awake and the germs at bay, I had to start thinking about where I wanted to go.

Now it’s four weeks after Katrina. I’m living, temporarily, with friends in Clemson, South Carolina. This week, ten SAC students and recent graduates will gather here, hosted by the university, to do some writing, some healing, some video-making, and some sharing and
reconnecting. For me it’ll be some early steps in getting back to New Orleans, the place I want to go but can’t really get to right now.

In the next weeks and months, I hope this blog will help in finding my way back to New Orleans. I hope to hear from other teachers who have had to learn what it means to live as part of a diaspora, and to learn to teach from that place. Along the way, I’ll share some of my students’ writings, making it public and talking about it, exploring the shadows of what we used to do in class each day. We’ll think about writing as healing and community building. We’ll look into when and why these goals should be central rather than peripheral to the classroom. And we’ll think long and hard about what my colleague, SAC co-director Kalamu ya Salaam, wrote last week about New Orleans now being more the people who carry our city’s spirit, not the place itself.

We’ll explore in this post-Katrina world, with my hometown now a ghost town, what it means to start with what you know… to start with where you’re at. . .


I send my greetings from Slidell, as a 5th grade teacher. We started back school on Monday with many displaced students coming into my school and classroom. As I walked down the hall, it was like looking at a museum of young masks that had emotions of many types. I had goosebumps several times Monday as I talked with my old students, met my new ones, and stayed strong for all. You are right about realizing what goals should be central. Many educators are discovering the true quality that we can still have withing a class without even having a classroom.

I have seen "writing as healing and community building" first hand. Writing and sharing our emotion laden story begins a powerful catharsis. Pen & Publish supports this healing process by publishing a school's anthology to encourage and celebrate expression from every voice. Since we offer this service without investment to any school or nonprofit in the US, our concern is being perceived as self-serving; a concern we now risk for the greater good.

As an elementary school principal in very dry Ft. Wayne, Indiana my heart goes out to all residents of New Orleans.
This year's number one priority in our school improvement plan is writing.
If we can help your students become better writers by a donation drive, please contact me at this e-mail address or call at 260-425-7368.
We'd love to partner with you and lend a hand if we can.
Hopefully, everyday will get better and these kids will never forget your heartfelt efforts!
Stephany Bourne

I am a long-time admirer of the work you and Kalaamu had done in New Orleans with Students at the Center. I had the privilege of visiting there for a short time and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in public education or anywhere else. Young people, the kind usually referred to by labels such as "at risk," thoroughly engaged in scholarship at the highest level--genuine thought, quality writing, addressing and solving real problems in their own lives and communnity.
As for teaching in the disapora, I am a transplant of sorts (from Detroit to rural Mississippi). Like you, where I teach is inextricably woven into what I teach (English). But if we are truly teaching, we have to be more than alien visitors in the communities in which we teach. At first, I thought this was just a rural notion, until I visited sites like yours in NO. Particularly, if we engage with students around language and its use, their communities, their homes, their lives before and after school--their culture--is the source of that language. Similarly, our language is shaped by the places and experiences of our lives. School is just one site where we exchange lives...

Greetings from the really dry Southwest. My heart and prayers have been with all of you during this most trying of times. However, knowing you as I have, and knowing the phenomenal work that you all have done, I know that not only will Students at the Center survive, but it will thrive! Every time I have had the opportunity to work with you, Kalamu, and the Students at the Center, I have come home a stronger writer and woman.
While we did not personally experience Katrina's power, we are feeling her effects. This past week has found tiny Tombstone High School five students bigger due to the displaced families. We welcome them with open arms, but I know the best way to make these students a part of our community is by writing together. You all (and Dixie Goswami, of course) taught me that. If there is anything we can do down here, just let me know. We are willing and able.
Ceci Lewis

Hello and thank you for your thoughts.
I would like to offer our website to teachers displaced by the Hurricanes. is a free site for teachers to search for and apply for jobs. From the news reports it appears the New Orlans schoools will not open for some time. People are welcome to go to and click on the Hurricane icon and become a member.

I am intrigued by your use of student writing to create theatre pieces, since I spent much of the last 20 years doing the same thing. I am now working mostly with teachers, but miss that part of my work.
I would love to read more about your work and look forward to your posting of student writings as well. Congratulations on figuring out how to get your students back with you in S.C. I don't think there's any better way of empowering young people than to provide a public forum for their voices.

Jim, I am excited to know that you are continuing to reach out to our kids. As the principal of Lawless High School I know first hand the work you do and how it impacts teaching and learning. I too am trying to find my way back to New Orleans, the Lower Nine, and my beloved Alfred Lawless High School. Continue to do the good work that matters the most.

Hello Mr. Randels,

I realize this is such an unfortunate situation for the city of New Orleans. My heart goes out to my family who has been personally affected and to teachers like you.

God Bless

You have a very talented and skilled writting. I had a great time reading your comments. to Hope Table you should be very Coolblooded: , to Hope Chips you should be very Good Give Player is very good Tournament , to Play Game you should be very Red Greedy Cards becomes Memorizing Chips in final

I am a graduate of Alfred Lawless class o/03
and was trying to get a copy of my diploma
so if theirs anyone that can help me please
e-mail me at [email protected]

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $41710. Isn't that crazy!

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