The film New Orleans and this companion Web site offer insights into topics in American history including race relations, cultural history (music, food, literature), geography and land management, and urbanization. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: geography, culture, history, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.
Great American cities. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following cities: Boston, Las Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Have groups imagine that they work for the tourist bureau for their assigned city; each group should prepare and then record a 30-second radio ad that encourages people to visit their city by listing its contributions to American culture. Groups may want to use music or sound effects to enhance their ads.
When groups have prepared their ads, play them for the class. Then have each member of the class take the online poll on which of the five cities has the most impressive cultural achievements.
A visitor to New Orleans. Have students review the interactive map of New Orleans at various points in its history. Ask each student to select one of the five times shown on the map: 1798, 1849, 1862, 1920s, and 2005. Imagining that she or he is visiting New Orleans at that time, each student should write a letter to a family member or friend back home describing the city as it appeared then. (Before writing their letters, students should decide where "they" are from -- their home can be in the United States or some other country -- and compare and contrast New Orleans with their home.)
Have students read their letters to the class, grouping the letters by time period. What were the similarities and differences among the letters of the students within each group? Taken together, what do the letters tell you about the evolution of New Orleans?
A world of music. Have each class member listen to samples of New Orleans music and read the commentary by George Buck. Next, cut up as many slips of paper as there are students in the class, and on each slip, write the name of one of the following musical styles Buck refers to: blues, Cajun, gospel, jazz, and ragtime. Place the slips of paper in a box and have each student select a slip.
Have each student find a song (or song clip) of the style of music he or she selected -- from a CD, online audio file, or some other source -- and play it for the class. Students should tell the class who wrote the song, who performed it, and when it was recorded. Have the rest of the class keep notes on which songs they liked the most and why. When they have heard all of the songs, have the class vote on their favorite song in each of the five categories, as well as their favorite category. Ask students what they have learned from the samples they have heard, such as the connections among these styles of music and the wide variety of sounds within each category.
The land of gumbo. As a class, review the feature on gumbo to get an introduction to just one of the dishes for which New Orleans is famous. Have students form groups to prepare a "New Orleans feast" for the class: one group should prepare gumbo, while the other groups should prepare other dishes associated with the city, such as red beans and rice, jambalaya, or po-boys. Have groups prepare enough of each dish for each student to sample. After the tasting, ask students what words they would use to describe New Orleans cuisine -- and whether they like it.
The "truth" about Mardi Gras. Write the following questions on the board:
In what language is the phrase "mardi gras," and what does it mean?
How is the purpose of Mardi Gras related to the Christian season of Lent?
From what pre-Christian celebration may Mardi Gras have evolved?
What is Carnival, and how does it differ from Mardi Gras?
What other places around the world have Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations? What are they like?
Why is it customary to wear a mask on Mardi Gras?
How did New Orleans mark Mardi Gras 2006, which took place when the city was still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina?
Have students find answers to these questions, using material from the film, this brief history of Mardi Gras, and other sources.
Then, on a sheet of paper, list each of the above questions, followed by "answers" that contain a mixture of true and false information. (Try to make the false information as believable as possible.) Place a copy of this sheet of paper face down on each student's desk. On your signal, students should turn the sheet over, review the "answers," and correct any inaccurate information they contain. See which student can be the first to correct all of the errors on the sheet.
Coping with disaster. Not only were 1,600 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, but many thousands of others lost their homes and most or all of their belongings as a result of the storm. Working with a partner, use the internet or other means to find first-hand accounts by Katrina survivors. Select the story you found most powerful and read it aloud to the class.
After teams have read their chosen accounts, have each member of the class consider this question: If your home and all your possessions were destroyed and your family was forced to move to a new area, what are the three things you would miss the most? These things can be tangible objects (such as a photo album) or experiences (such as a particular sight, sound, or smell). Students should submit their lists anonymously; the teacher would then review the lists and read selected entries to the class. Close by asking whether this activity has given class members a greater appreciation of their homes.
Separate and unequal. In 1892, when a New Orleans shoemaker named Homer Plessy challenged a recent Louisiana law separating whites and blacks on railroad cars, he started a chain of events that would produce one of the Supreme Court's most important, and controversial, decisions.
As a class, hold a mock Supreme Court hearing on Plessy v. Ferguson. Have one group of students represent the state and argue that the segregation law is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and a second group of students represent Plessy and argue that the law is unconstitutional. For information on the specific points raised before the Court, groups should consult original sources such as the text of the Court's decision on this case and the lone dissent, by Justice Harlan as well as secondary sources.
Additional students should play the roles of the Supreme Court justices who heard the case. They should listen to the arguments presented by both sides and challenge both sides to explain and defend their positions. Then each "justice" should cast a vote for one of the two sides. After the voting, have volunteers read passages aloud from the Court's decision and Harlan's dissent. Close by asking: Is it possible for the law to keep the races separate yet treat them equally, or will segregation always mean discrimination?
A laboratory of diversity. As the film shows, in areas ranging from food to literature to music, New Orleans' diversity has been a source of great strength. But the city's diversity has also been a source of tension, as the examples of Reconstruction, school desegregation, and even Mardi Gras show.
Hold a class discussion on whether you think it is possible for a community to enjoy the benefits of diversity without its costs. What lessons does the history of New Orleans provide? Are there any lessons you can draw from your community's, or your school's, experience?
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