Students document a city's resolve during flood crisis

Unforgettable teaching opportunities can spring from tragedy and triumph. English professors Dr. Jim Grove and Dr. Joy Ochs found themselves amid a once in a lifetime event when the June 2008 flood hit Eastern Iowa. As experienced educators, they were able to draw upon the catastrophe to create a unique learning experience for their students.

At the time of the floods, Grove and Ochs were team-teaching a course, “Writing and Place,” and the subject matter suddenly came alive in a way that would have been impossible before the catastrophic flooding. The course utilized the “place as text” teaching technique and called upon students to “read” their geographic surroundings like a book, picking up clues using their sensory perceptions. “Place as text” is more than reading a text — it is reading a city. The experienced professors quickly re-structured the curriculum to enable students to get out into the community and witness first-hand the affects of the flood. Students were required to gather the histories of individual residents and business owners impacted by the flood by interviewing them on camera and capturing their journey of survival on film.

To prepare their students, Grove and Ochs sought the help of Mark Hunter, noted Cedar Rapids historian, and Mary Sharpe, a journalist with The Cedar Rapids Gazette. Hunter gave the students lessons and information on the history of Cedar Rapids and Sharpe offered tips on conducting successful interviews. Armed with these new tools, the 30 students began interviewing flood victims about their harrowing experiences in escaping the rising waters and the aftermath of dealing with the worst natural disaster in Iowa’s history.

Members of the “Place as Text” class interacted with small business owners and residents of the hardest hit areas, including the Time Czech and Czech Village neighborhoods. Each interview captured a new moment of sorrow, determination, and camaraderie, as person after person shared their personal heartache and triumph of living through a disaster.

“There were poignant moments when people first realized how bad it really was,” says Grove. But there was also determination, too. Sophomore Jennifer Lala, an elementary education major from Fairfax, Iowa, was struck by the fortitude she saw in business owners, particularly one restaurant owner who lost nearly everything — and yet started over without waiting for government assistance. “His story of courage is something that I will always remember,” says Lala. “His story is a story of hope and is something that everyone should look to if they were affected by the flood.”

In addition to gathering the oral histories of those who experienced the flood, the students also documented their own reflections about what the experience meant to them. “The students were challenged spiritually and emotionally, not just intellectually,” says Ochs. “This course changed me in the fact that I was able to learn an entirely different side of the flood,” Lala says. “These people were, and still are, faced with one of the biggest challenges of their lives: starting over. This course allowed me to see that.”

To cap the course off, students were also required to prepare a formal research paper on the flood and the river. To research the topic they visited the Mississippi River in Harper’s Ferry and were given a private tour of the lock and dam system, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the structures that are in place to control — and that sometimes contribute to – flooding.

Throughout the experience the students fully immersed themselves in their surroundings, reading the city and seeing it in a whole new way. “They got more out of it than if we would have just taught in the classroom,” says Ochs. Grove agrees that the circumstances that summer lent themselves to a learning experience unlike any other. “It was such an intense experience, maybe it was a once in a lifetime, because there was such a serious intent to the course,” he says.

Sophomore Daniel Morgan, an English and criminal justice major from Marion, Iowa, will remember the inner strength of those individuals he and his classmates interviewed. “I think what surprised us the most was their awesome power of will,” he says. “Some of them lost everything in the flood, yet somehow, all the people we interviewed had high spirits and refused to let something like the flood ruin their lives. Midwestern spirit can never be broken.”

The on-camera interviews and collected stories of loss and devastation, determination and resolve, have been donated to the History Center in Cedar Rapids, ensuring that the students’ work will be a lasting contribution to the community. “That made it really start to sink in to some of our students,” says Grove. “They would say, ‘I’ll be able to take my kids to see this.’”

“It feels really good to know that my story and my experiences with the flood are going to the History Center,” says Lala. “This flood is something that will go down in history, and I am proud that I could help tell the story.”

Morgan agrees with his classmate, stating, “I really hope that by putting all our writings into the History Center, no one in this generation, or future ones, will forget what happened during the summer of 2008 and the incredible impact the flood had on the city.”