The following is a republishing of my blog post on The Royal Oak Patch, June 27, 2011

Somewhere through the middle of a week like Joplin I begin to ask myself what I can possibly say to help my students process their experience, to learn from it whatever lessons they most need.

I am a teacher that can be full of lecture; I recognize that.  And I know that for most of us, the role of the teacher is to imbue knowledge to young people, to offer them the correct grammar and to help them practice their mathematics.  This English teacher corrected no grammar all week.

But I did tell all of the students that they had two jobs: to work and to listen. And, as always, I had no idea how important those simple directions would be. Even having run similar trips before, I did not anticipate the impact they would have on the people of Joplin or on my students. And of such encounters is education made real.

To be sure, our work in Joplin was important.  We worked on a total of five different home sites and on Joplin High School, completing work on three of them.  Our original goal was to complete two home sites during the week. We were scheduled to work a Salvation Army distribution center all week.  We did, but we also staffed the Salvation Army’s “Oasis” tent to help residents apply for FEMA aid. Some of our students created and staffed an impromptu children’s center with coloring books, chalk, and now stuffed animals for each child who arrives. And when time on Friday afternoon ran out, four of our students protested and completed work on our fifth home site in 95 degree heat, even as the rest of us sorted and packed tools.

We did not expect to meet the art teacher whose home was destroyed and yet insisted our students find ways to save materials for re-use by his neighbors. We left the basement of our second site intact, the place where an elderly couple huddled against the storm which flooded them with mud and debris. We met Troy, a local radio DJ, who was so impressed with our work that he bought our group passes to a local fair. We met a man from Washington state who drove down without a plan, just to help.

We could not anticipate the man who would cry on the shoulder of one of our interns, or the woman who begged for simple detergent at the distribution center. (When our students found some, they literally cheered, but such finds were rare.)

We were overwhelmed by the devoted attention of the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the local police and media, and dozens of residents to our work. Down the block we saw Americorps volunteers, Samaritans, and even the Kansas City Chiefs working on homes, and it was not enough. Trucks would stop to offer water, snacks, and medical attention.

As freshman Calum carried supplies to the car of one resident, the cascade of thank-you’s made him “feel like a superhero.” As another couple looked on while we dismantled the remains of their home, the words “God Bless you” seemed to them inadequate.

We were forced to turn away some residents asking for aid, perhaps because they did not have their FEMA aid number, or because they could not provide written evidence of insurance or residence status:  we learned first-hand about government bureaucracy. We witnessed a dozen trucks through the week scavenging metal; we heard stories of the people of Joplin scammed by con artists looking to take advantage of their plight. We saw the “Tornado Pets” shelter and knew it held hundreds of homeless animals. We were there while the death toll from the tornadoes rose twice more.

We helped children draw pictures of their experience, one boy insisting that we add Transformers to his violent image to stop the tornado from destroying more homes.

Dale from Joplin walked me through the remains of his home as we removed its front wall, showing me the bathroom where he crouched over his 18-month-old grandson, telling him that “If grandpa stopped talking to him, not to worry, because his dad would come home soon.” The ceiling of the bathroom ripped away and water poured across them, but the walls remained.

And so we worked, but we listened.

At our Friday reflection, I had a hard time telling my small stories.  But these and others poured out of our students. We write words, sometimes, which are wholly inadequate to the experiences we carry with us.

One of our students said that he did not at the beginning of the week believe his work could mean anything here. Several said they wished they could stay, no matter how sore we all were. Another reminded us that while we were here for a week, the people of Joplin would live like this for many months more. And one said that before this week she had never before felt proud of herself.

Education, I remind myself, the kind that counts, cannot always be measured by an ACT score.  And I don’t have to have every answer to the questions of our students’ experiences.  All we need to do is open an opportunity for young people to find a genuine purpose in their lives, one that does not require the bribery of a GPA or the distracted rewards of Nintendo privileges.  Service to others teaches much of what we need, if we create opportunities for this kind of education.

And, for better and for worse, the world is full of them.

Please find out more about Interact of Royal Oak at our website:  There you will find more photos of our work and information on our other projects.

Many thanks go to National Relief Network who organized our work experience, perhaps the only non-profit that works with minors in disaster relief service trips.

And more thanks to editor Beth Valone and reporter Judy Davids of The Patch for this terrific opportunity for my students to reflect through their week in Joplin.

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