New Orleans: Rebirth and Reconciliation: What I hope to learn

NB: This blog was originally posted on the Teach First Community Website. I’ve re-posted here to frame the context behind our visit to New Orleans this October half term:

I’m Sarah, South London Teach First Ambassador and staff member, leading our trip to New Orleans over the October Half Term. In this blog, I’m writing about why I’m so excited about our New Orleans project and what I’m looking forward to.

 class nola

New Orleans Louisiana, as well as being famed for its eclectic mix of culture, food and music, has experienced a complete overhaul in terms of its education system; recovering post-hurricane Katrina and from the deep-seated underachievement that preceded it. If you’re a Netflix user, ‘Rebirth New Orleans’ documents this far better than I can.

I’m really looking forward to visiting Café Reconcile, an innovative life skills and job training programme assisting young people from at-risk communities who want to make a positive change in their lives. I’m equally excited about going on a community tour and meeting some of the community leaders responsible for the transformation in New Orleans, including Mary Laurie (pictured below) who features in ‘Hope Against Hope’. Then there’s the music. This is going to be INCREDIBLE.

mary laurie

That said, behind all of this excitement and anticipation lies something that is really important to me.  South London has the largest community of Teach First ambassadors in the country, yet we know that we need to do much more to connect, inspire and mobilise this group of people for us to have a lasting impact. Being an ambassador who has taught in South London myself, I know how easy it is to feel disconnected – even powerless – when it comes to tackling the challenges of educational disadvantage once you’ve left the classroom, or even within it. It’s huge. In some of the Outer London Boroughs that I work in now, such as Sutton and Merton, pupils are almost half as likely than their peers to achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE if they are eligible for Free School Meals. As a teacher, I knew all too well that I could make small, positive influences on the lives of my pupils but I couldn’t always tackle the huge, life-long obstacles that they face outside the classroom to overcome this inequity on my own.

In New Orleans, 860 alumni of the Teach for America programme are working together with each other and the local community to create organisations like mSchools, which are changing the pathways for young people across the district. Twenty-seven alumni are school leaders in New Orleans and many others are designing exciting new curriculum, driving city and state policy, working in advocacy, and innovating through social entrepreneurship. To top that, there’s a huge community of alumni committed to staying in the classroom and making a difference at the grass roots. Surely there’s something we can learn from this?

I believe that giving people the space and time to think, to explore new ways of learning and doing, and most importantly to see motivation and inspiration in action is the very bedrock of great ideas and innovations. Creating a shared experience undoubtedly brings people closer together, and supports them to make connections which will support the network beyond the experience itself. This is what we hope will make a difference for our group of staff and ambassadors visiting New Orleans. As a group, we are already beginning to consider how we will share our learning with our community and kick-start ideas and projects that will have a positive and practical impact on the lives of the young people in South London. We’re beginning to plan for our legacy as a group, and would love to hear your thoughts on what you think could help make a difference to the lives of young people in South London because after all, this project is not only about our learning but how we can share it with others to make it worthwhile.

cafe recon

If you’d like to share your own experiences of New Orleans, tell us what we should be looking out for while we’re there, or simply follow us on Twitter for updates, stories and news from the Bayou then here’s your first port of call: #TFNOLA14

We can’t wait to share with you what we’ve been up to, and what we intend to do with this learning experience in the future. For now, wish us good luck driving on the other side of the road and finding ourselves suitably scary costumes for the Krewe of Boo parade!


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