Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Final Reflection: Farewell Mississippi...Till I Come Home Again

Greetings to all of our Followers!!!

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks for reading this blog. Keeping track of our thoughts in this fashion would not have been worthwhile if nobody bothered to read them. THANK YOU to all of those who have followed our blog! Your suppport has encouraged and inspired us!

As previously done before, I would like to apologize for not posting in a while. It has been several days since I returned from Mississippi to Ohio, and I am only getting around to posting on our blog right now.

This will be my final post.

The last week at St. Gabriel Mercy Center will forever remain etched in my memory. What a week! We had volunteers helping us out the whole time. Ms. Ginger, a 3rd grade teacher, was one of our volunteers. She was AWESOME! Most of our volunteers had typically been kids roughly our own age. But having a professional on board really changed some of the dynamics. She read to the kids and worked really well both with groups and individuals. Aside from the usual math/reading activities, we had a little bit of a different rotation schedule. Josh needed more time to practice the Russian Revolution Skit he wrote for the 10-13 year olds. So they had rehearsal both Monday and Tuesday for extended periods of time (1 hr and 30 minutes). Nina and I did activities keeping the middle and youngest kids together along with some divided exercises too. For example, we conducted a joint lesson on germs and hygiene with both groups together. Nina organized a creative way to show how germs go from one person to another so easily. She put some glitter on two kids’ hands. We all then walked around and shook one another’s hands. By the end of the activity, only two kids in the whole classroom had NO glitter on their hands while everyone else had at least a few specks. The kids immediately understood how germs spread because of this VERY visual demonstration. Nina also led the kids through the Star-Spangled Banner since that was the opening act of the final presentation for the parents. The week continued with more of the same – gearing up for the big performance. I worked on Karate with all the kids throughout the week too, while Nina picked two girls to read their Wayside Essays out loud for the parents. We did a full run through on Wednesday and honestly I didn’t know just how things were going to turn out! It seemed like everything needed to be tightened up a lot, and I wasn’t sure if the kids were ready. Still we proceeded on. Thursday came before we knew it – our last day with the children. We gathered everybody and went to the Cafeteria. Josh, Nina, and I had set up everything the day before, so the kids went straight into one last run through of the presentation. Before we knew it, the parents started rolling in. Mrs. Lyles brought the seniors too! We had a packed crowd! Nina, Josh, and I were so excited and happy that a lot of people showed up. When the performance started we could tell our kids were ready to show the audience one performance they’d never forget! First the 5-7 year olds + 8-9 year olds opened the presentation with the National Anthem. Afterwards I led each of the age groups through their respective Karate demos. Next Josh had the 10-13 years olds perform the Russian Revolution skit. It turned out very nicely, and I commend Josh for writing such an entertaining yet educational script. Finally Nina had the girls read their Wayside Essays for everybody. We capped off the whole program by calling up each child up individually and presenting them with nice certificates. Each kid also got a folder containing all of the worksheets they had done from the beginning of the program. Nina did a terrific job filing all the papers since the early days of the Summer Youth Program. Before concluding the whole show, we called up Sister Donald Mary and Sister Donella. We gave them a card meant for all the staff of St. Gabriel’s to thank them for everything they’ve done for us. We also gave Sister Donald Mary and Sister Donella flowers for being such great mentors for us. Sister Donald Mary then proceeded to thank all of the parents for coming and showing their support. The Summer Youth Program’s Final Presentation had been a HUGE SUCCESS!!! All the kids really showed how much they’ve learned during the two months. They hit it out of the park! I felt so proud as a teacher. The reception that followed the program was bittersweet. Being so strict with the kids for so long, I know that few kids were ready to see the compassionate side of Nina, Josh, and myself. I was very sad to say goodbye to the kids. It has been one week since the program ended, and I miss them dearly. Whatever it is I taught them, they have undoubtedly taught me so much more.

Looking back at the whole Summer Youth Program, our goal was to make the experience as educational as we possibly could. We progressively got more and more rigorous with our academic agenda as the program went on, yet I feel the kids benefitted the most as we became more focused on building their essential life skills. Perhaps at times, the kids might have felt our program was far too much work and not enough fun. It definitely resembled summer school more often than a summer youth program. Still, this is what the kids NEEDED. Nina, Josh, and I are very proud that we delivered what we envisioned for the kids. Ending on such a high note too with the brilliant performance has provided us with tremendous gratification. On the last day when we compiled our GIANT binder of all of our lesson plans/worksheets. We were so proud.

The rest of our last day at St. Gabriel’s was very sad. Saying goodbye to everyone was not easy. St. Gabriel Mercy Center threw Nina, Josh, and me a pizza party to go along with our departure. Our Robertson friends from the Sunflower County Freedom Project came as well to visit St. Gabriel’s. It was all so sweet. I definitely pigged out on my share of pizza and ice cream. The whole staff signed individual cards for each of us too as we were presented with a photograph of all the kids and us. I will treasure that framed photograph as I return to Duke. It will be a precious reminder of all that took place this summer. There couldn’t be a better present!

Our final week outside of work was also incredibly memorable. To start with, the weekend before our last week was perhaps the most adventurous time of our whole summer. On Saturday July 18th, Nina and I got up and left at 4:30 AM to take Hilary to the Greenville airport. We weren’t sure quite where it was (not to mention all the back roads we had to travel), so we had to leave early for her 6:30 AM flight. The drive was about an hour, but it was wonderfully serene since I got to watch the sunrise amidst all the fields of crops with no one else on the road. When we got to the Greenville airport, we were shocked at how tiny it was! Only two flights to Memphis per day! Only 1 Gate! Ha, I definitely knew that it was the smallest airport I had ever seen. After Hilary checked in, we went upstairs to the museum they had above. The Greenville Airport used to be a military base and air force flight school back during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Many pilots in World War II and even the Cold War trained there at that facility. It was fascinating to see all the history that place had! After all the time she spent in various museums this summer, it was fitting that Hilary had a chance to see one more museum before she left Mississippi. After saying our goodbye to Hilary, Nina and I left to find a famous bakery in Leland known as Connie’s Kitchen. It took us a while going back and forth but we found it eventually. WOW!!!!!!! Words cannot describe how delicious the bakery was!!! Connie’s Kitchen certainly lived up to all the hype. I had an apple fritter, slice of lemon pie, slice of chocolate cream pie, and finally got a big peach pie to go. Connie’s Kitchen must be what heaven is like. After a fine meal, Nina and I decided to explore Greenville a little bit. However, we saw that the Arkansas border was so close…why not go over? Nina commented that by visiting Arkansas, we would have been to four new states during the course of our Robertson Summer (Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas). The logic appealed to me! I said we should just drive over to Arkansas for a quick peek and then return back to Mississippi. When we got there we stopped by at a dock on a BEAUTIFUL lake. It was such a gorgeous day outside. The sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, and the lake was shimmering dazzling sparkles. It was at that time we got a fateful call from Nina’s mom. When we told Mrs. Woolley that we were Arkansas, she directed us to drive a little further to Little Rock. Huh?? That’s two hours away, we can’t do that?! But Mrs. Woolley told us we had to check out the Clinton Museum and a short drive was certainly worth it to visit Little Rock. When exactly would we be in Arkansas next? Mrs. Woolley had us sold. On an impromptu decision, Nina and I jumped in the car and hit the road. On the way, we realized that our good friend Brent Sodman had returned to Little Rock from his Robertson summer in New Orleans. So when we called him up, we were super excited to find out he was home! We plugged in his address to our trusty navigation system (Nina named him J.J.) and away we were! Sadly the only thing we realized about our trip was that our time in Arkansas had to be cut short. We wished to return in time for Freedom Day – the big performance put on by the kids at the Sunflower County Freedom Project. So with only about 2 hours in Little Rock, we had to make the most of it! Immediately after arriving there, we greeted Brent’s mom and sprinted out the door. Brent took us out to lunch and drove to a place by the Arkansas River. It was splendid. Following that excursion, we navigated to downtown Little Rock and checked out the Bill Clinton Museum for the last 45 minutes or so. The museum is really cool; I’d love to visit again and go through it more closely. Finally Brent wanted to take us by his old high school, the famous Central High School – a national historic site due to integration of the Little Rock Nine in 1957 to a previously all white school. Unfortunately we did not have enough time but promised to visit Brent again (next time when our friend Cameron Zohoori is also at home). We left Little Rock after saying goodbye to Brent and his family and drove all the way to Sunflower, MS for the end of the performance. The night ended with a big dinner of Chinese food. It was the end of a day PACKED with adventure. I wish I had my camera on me to document all that took place that day. The following day was great too since we all went to church together in Indianola and watched Harry Potter for a Sunday night trip to the Greenville theatre.

During the last week everyone was working hard to get the most out of their last days in Mississippi. For example Josh and Kenneth made it a point to go to as many blues clubs and shows as they possibly could. It was pretty impressive. On Wednesday, we said farewell to our dearest friends at the Wesley House at Delta State. They have been so nice to us during our stay in Cleveland. Every Wednesday, we always looked forward to having dinner at their place. They took us in with such warm, loving hearts. Our experience in Mississippi would not have been the same without them. I hope future Robertson Scholars will meet up with our Wesley friends as the years go on. Eddie Willis, director of the Wesley Foundation at Delta State, is one of the nicest people I have ever met. Nina, Michael, and I went over to his house late Wednesday night and spent some quality time there. He has such a precious family. Whenever I think of Southern hospitality I will definitely think of Eddie and the Wesley crew. On Thursday after we helped clean up at St. Gabriel’s, Nina, Josh, and I made one last SONIC run. It was special since we went to SONIC almost every day during the summer after work. I will miss that place. On Thursday, Nina and I went to Morgan Freeman’s restaurant Madidi for dinner. It was delicious. Later on Nina, Michael, and I baked desserts for the Homeless Shelter. For one of Michael’s last events at the homeless shelter, he was coordinating a bake sale. He asked Nina and me to make some items. Nina went ahead and made some scrumptious Molasses Cookies. They were AMAZING! I went ahead and made two chocolate pudding pies with whipped cream. The pie Michael dubbed, “The Patriot Pie,” was topped with strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. The other pie dubbed, “The Mississippi Mud Pie” was topped with gummy worms and Mint-Cream Oreos. Yummy! On Friday after the bake sale, I found out that two of our Robertson scholars, Kimi and Alison, went to the Shelter Bake Sale and bought the Mississippi Mud Pie! Ha ha!! I was delighted to see that. Nina, Josh, and I made one last trip to Mound Bayou after work Friday to visit two of our students who had wished to go bowling with us. Although we regretted not being able to go bowling with them, we made an earnest effort to visit their home and say a proper goodbye. After having one last dinner of Soul Food at Senator’s Place, we all got to have a slice of my pie on Friday night before saying farewell to each other.

As I mentioned earlier, this will be my final post. On reflecting, it is very difficult to sum up my whole experience into a few words. I have been regularly sharing with all of you the excitement of everything that has taken place over these past two months through this blog. I am already so nostalgic for all that took place in Mississippi. I look back and recall the emotions of what it was like just getting there back in May – Po’Monkey’s on the first night, visiting St. Gabriel’s for the first time, cooking our first meal. I think back to the first week of the Summer Youth Program. We had no idea of what we were doing! Oh, how much we grew. Nina, Josh, and I feel so proud of what we accomplished at St. Gabriel’s this summer. I feel privileged to have worked besides two fine Robertson Scholars. Both Nina Woolley and Josh Evans brought so much to our team, and I cannot imagine my summer without them. All of my friends in Mississippi have a special place in my heart – both my Robertson friends who I have grown closer to as well as all the new friendships I’ve made in the Delta. Sister Donald Mary, Sister Donella, all the staff of St. Gabriel Mercy Center, and all of the people who I’ve come across in Mound Bayou have touched me so deeply. Few endeavors in my life have ever felt this satisfying. I can never forget Mississippi. My experience this summer has now become a part of me. All that I have learned about life has now merged with my subconscious thinking. Thus I will carry it all with me wherever I go.

I once passed a sign on a billboard that said, “Welcome to Mississippi: It’s Like Coming Home.”

Farewell Mississippi…

Till I come home again.


Pictures From Our Last Week

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Little Help From Friends - A Lot of FUN

Greetings Everyone!!!

I hope everyone is staying healthy and well. A TON of exciting things have happened since I last posted.

At St. Gabriel’s we just had two really great weeks! Why? Well last week, out of the whole time, there was a remarkable occurrence in regards to behavior. THERE WERE ONLY TWO CARD FLIPS THE ENTIRE WEEK! I cannot stress how absolutely amazing this was for us. As Nina mentioned in her post, this was mainly because of the enormous presence of volunteers that we were equipped with. The children did not mess around as much with so much individual attention per kid. On that note, the extra volunteers not just helped keep things under control but also enabled the kids to have personalized help with math, reading, journal writing, etc. On Wednesday of last week we also had some special assistance from one of our very own Robertson friends! Nina thanked our fellow Robertson Scholar Hilary Henry (pictured above), in her last post for coming in and helping us. Hilary, who works for Luther Brown at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, has been learning volumes of information about the Mississippi Delta as part of her Robertson summer experience. We could not think of anyone better to come in and teach the children about their hometown of Mound Bayou since Founder’s Day (the annual celebration of Mound Bayou’s beginnings) took place on July 12th. I felt pretty lucky to be Hilary’s assistant the whole day and watch her in action. With the 10-13 year olds, Hilary gave them a short passage to read about the history of Mound Bayou and how it was founded. They then proceeded to break up into groups and make a skit about what they learned. Ha ha, it sure was entertaining! Next with the 8-9 year olds, Hilary had a very creative activity planned. She typed a children’s book titled, “The Story of Mound Bayou” and had it illustrated by the kids. Each child got to draw a picture for a page of the book. After it was assembled all together, Hilary read the story to the kids and asked them questions about the book. They seemed to learn a lot from this activity. The final product was something they were proud of as well. Finally with the 5-7 year olds, Hilary proceeded to read the book the 8-9 year olds had illustrated to teach the kids about Mound Bayou. She then gave the kids prearranged square sheets of cloth for each kid to decorate. The sheets were labeled with significant landmarks and people from Mound Bayou’s past such as the Taborian Hospital and Isaiah T. Montgomery. After the kids finished illustrating them with markers, we all gathered around in a circle to share them. Hilary is sewing all the cloth into a blanket to be displayed in the classroom. We are so grateful that Hilary came to spend the day with us last Wednesday. It was a wonderful experience for everyone.

The children all seemed to like Hilary as well. Many quickly warmed up to her by giving her hugs. What was most peculiar however was the prevailing notion amongst the kids that Hilary was Nina’s sister! Both Josh and Nina are among the few white people these kids have ever seen. Growing up in Mound Bayou their whole lives, it seemed logical to these kids that Nina and Hilary were related in some capacity.
This past week was also fantastic. There was no help for us this week, but things still seemed to fly by. We had a week-long theme of nutrition and health for the summer youth program. This “Wellness Week” was full of all kinds of activities geared around educating the kids about living healthy lifestyles. What we taught our kids this week ranks on par in importance compared with all math and reading we’ve done thus far. For example, soda pop is an unquestionable staple in the diets of many of the kids. Most of the food in the South is deep fried and extremely oily too. So Diabetes and other problem related to obesity have made huge negative impact in this region. High sugar and fat diets tend to have obvious ripple effects for health too such as poor dental hygiene. Nina, Josh, and I decided we could not ignore such a serious issue for these children. For our “Word of the Day” we chose words such as hygiene to start the week off and decay to end the week. Our normal reading comprehension worksheets/activities were specifically designed to be on topics pertinent to health (thus we got a two for one deal here). We touched upon science by learning about proteins and the food guide pyramid. We had the kids do an exercise where they had to study the nutrition facts of the two of the snacks we provide them at our summer youth program (Peanut Butter Crackers vs. Fruit Snacks). The 5-7 year olds watched a movie too we got from the library titled, “Going to the Doctors.”Nina read to them the classic Stone Soup by Ann McGovern and did fun games with them about food. On Wednesday, we had our second Robertson Scholar guest lecturer in the form of Kenneth Barshop (pictured above). Kenneth has been interning with Dr. Steven Clark for his Robertson summer in Mississippi. He has gained a lot of clinical experience this summer and learned a ton about Diabetes. We were super pumped to have him on board to come and teach the kids about staying healthy! Kenneth came to St. Gabriel’s with a well-prepared lesson plan. He set up and got right in helping kids with their journals. Funny, during journal time many kids asked me if Kenneth was Josh’s brother! Ha ha, I guess I should have seen that one coming. After helping the kids during journal time, he proceeded to take the 10-13 year olds for their activity. Kenneth distributed booklets relating to health and wellness to the kids and had them study them. He followed up with dividing the kids into teams and conducting a creative game of Jeopardy. Josh was on standby to help Kenneth with controlling the kids. But I hear things went very smoothly. Kenneth tried a similar activity with the middle kids. Yet he noticed they really seemed to absorb the material better when he went over it with them out loud. That was a hit of course since they love competing against one another (and they get a lot of that with Josh’s multiplication drills/games). With the youngest kids, Kenneth taught them about the food pyramid through a worksheet. Nina had done a creative food grouping exercise the day before, so the children were all exposed to the concept before which was nice. Thursday was the day for dental hygiene. My thanks goes out to Dr. Ragunanthan, Cindi Miller, Brandy Imes, and the rest of his staff for their help sending me the materials I needed to conduct a solid lesson on dental hygiene. THANK YOU! They sent me three packages of stuff including pamphlets (on gum disease, tobacco, smoking), books, and a toy stuffed animal dragon with teeth. With the 8-9 year olds and the 10-13 year olds I did same activity. I created a dental hygiene study sheet titled, “Braveen’s Guide to Healthy Teeth” with information on teeth anatomy, how to care for one’s teeth, problems associated with poor hygiene, and finally foods to eat and avoid. I went over the guide with them and had a discussion over the contents. After seeing how much the kids loved Jeopardy with Kenneth, I decided to give that a shot too with teeth. Nina made all the questions for me off of the study guide. Jeopardy was a hit, and I feel that they all learned a lot too. I noticed some kids were pretty upset when they lost. I stressed to them that the take home message was rather to simply brush + floss properly twice a day. Hopefully they’ll listen. I know a lot of kids already have some pretty bad teeth. Things will only get worse if their habits don’t change. Next up with the youngest kids, Josh and I gathered all the kids around a table and got them ready to read. I read a book to them from the American Dental Association about Dudley the Dinosaur. We talked to the kids about the lessons in the book and the importance of brushing their teeth. Then we showed them “Mr. Chomper.” He was the toy dragon with life-like human teeth. The kids took turns touching and petting “Mr. Chomper.” I gave them a demonstration on how to brush teeth on “Mr. Chomper’s” teeth after that.

Aside from that we have been nicely wrapping up with our specialized lessons at St. Gabriel’s. Nina has finished the Wayside essays and has started short stories with them. Josh has finished his huge seminar on the Russian Revolution. Now he has written a script for them to perform in the presentation to the parents on the last day of the program. I have been finishing up Karate, and on Wednesday we practiced what we will be performing in the presentation.

Now outside of all our work, we’ve been keeping quite busy as well. Last Wednesday was our big community dinner Luther Brown organized for us and all of our mentors. It was a huge community gathering and a lot of people attended. Mr. Scott Coopwood, who publishes the Delta Business Journal, Delta Magazine, and the Cleveland Current newspaper, among other businesses, hosted the event. An article appeared highlighting the Robertson Scholars then appeared in the paper the following Sunday. On Thursday we all went to Po’Monkey’s again. This was my second time going after initially visiting on Day 1! I danced next to some dude with killer moves. He was a little drunk but took a liking to me and gave me his hat as he left. The next day Nina, Josh, Hilary, and I all went to visit our fellow Robertson Scholars working at the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Our Robertson friends Erin Convery, Alison Kibbe, Matt Clayton, and Kimi Goffe are doing some incredible work with the summer school program they are running there. The age range for the kids at the SCFP is older than ours – all children are either going to 7th, 8th, or 9th grade. In addition to that the number of kids is smaller than the Summer Youth Program at St. Gabriel’s. They have full day long classes too in what is essentially a rigorous summer school that also has fun activities mixed in. Nina, Josh, Hilary, and I served as a college panel when we got there and answered questions about Duke and college in general for the kids. I was honored that they asked me to teach Karate for the kids for a little bit after that. We concluded the day by watching the kids battle each other in some “Math Wars.” HILARIOUS!!! For more information about the Sunflower County Freedom Project, visit their website:

Later Friday night, Nina and I cooked some Indian food that my mom sent us in through the mail earlier that week. Chappathi with Mattar Paneer was a big hit with all of our friends. Hilary also made a really delicious chocolate chip cake-type dessert. The following day Lee Aylward took us to Memphis for our final guided tour. It was an awesome trip. We visited Graceland, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the National Civil Rights Musuem. All three locations were REALLY fascinating. Our Robertson friend Michael Bernert coined it best at Stax when he said, “Being at Stax especially after living in the Delta really gave me an understanding of American music and in a larger way, an understanding of what it means to be an American.” Everything all comes back to the Mississippi Delta I’ve realized. My favorite was the Civil Rights Museum. It gave me chills to see where Martin Luther King died. The museum was really a neat place with so much information. I wish I had more time to go through it in greater detail. Later that night some of us got together at the apartment to watch The Shining. I don’t know how I slept that night. It was a pretty scary movie! On Sunday was Founder’s Day in Mound Bayou and Michael, Josh, Nina, and I went to check out the gravesite ceremony at Isaiah Montgomery’s grave. Unfortunately I did not bring my camera with me to take pictures. Funny thing though, apparently there was a TV camera set up that got us on television. The next day a lot of people, including our kids, told us that they saw us on TV!!


Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Great Start to July

I apologize for not posting sooner. Our past week and a half has been so busy that I didn’t even find time to write about it until now!

Last weekend, as Josh and Braveen mentioned, all the Robertson Scholars from Mississippi went down to New Orleans to visit with all of the Robertson Scholars there. We had a wonderful visit with our friends! We drove down on Friday and then began to explore the city by eating great food. I especially enjoyed visiting Central Grocery and eating a delicious muffuletta sandwich, since I had been told by one of my favorite high school teachers and by one of the Sisters at St. Gabriel’s that I must eat a muffuletta from Central Grocery. It was indeed delicious! On Friday night we went to Bourbon Street for a bit to witness the crazy New Orleans nightlife. It is really wild! It is certainly unlike anything we have experienced in Mississippi this summer. On Saturday morning, the whole group got together to play a fun game of soccer, organized by our friend Harrison. Our friend Brent then took us on a driving tour of the Ninth Ward, the area hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina. We ended Saturday with a big Fourth of July Barbeque, which all of the Mississippi and all of the New Orleans Scholars attended, and then watched fireworks by the riverside. It was a wonderful visit.

I enjoyed exploring New Orleans, as I had never been there before. I also really loved to get a sense of what our friends in New Orleans are experiencing this summer. Hearing about their work, living with them for a few days, and touring the city with them gave me an idea about what their summer is like. I really enjoyed that and I wish I could visit the places where the other Robertson Scholars are working this summer as well. It was an interesting feeling coming back to Cleveland after being in New Orleans. As we drove into Cleveland, I suddenly got the feeling that I was coming back home. I have come to love Cleveland, especially its small-town, community feel, and I appreciated coming back here after experiencing the busy, flashy New Orleans.

Work this week went very well. I have continued to tutor a GED student in math three times a week in the morning. I enjoy this work very much. I’m happy that I’ve been able to continue to tutor, even though the official summer GED program is on break until August. The youth program has also been very rewarding. This past week went especially smoothly since we had a large volunteer group present. Eighteen high-school students from southern Mississippi were working at St. Gabriel’s last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and we were lucky enough to have nine helpers work with us every afternoon. We worked on reading comprehension and math with the kids in very small groups, one or two kids with a volunteer. With this set-up, we were able to do reading comprehension worksheets, telling time, counting money, and addition/subtraction with the five through seven year olds, and reading comprehension and multiplication/division with the eight and nine year olds. They loved the individual attention and also put in a lot of hard work. Another bonus to having so many volunteers was that the kids were much better behaved. With so much supervision, the kids did not act up at all, and we did not have to “flip” anybody’s card on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. This meant every child received a prize at the end of the week!

I have continued to work on reading and writing with the oldest age group (10-13 year olds), and now almost every student has finished his/her essay and has typed it on the computers! I am very proud of their hard work and their willingness to revise multiple times to make their essays as great as they can be. For the remainder of the program, I will probably work on more reading comprehension and paragraph writing with them, which I will structure through short stories. We started delving into short stories on Thursday by reading “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes, which they enjoyed, and writing a paragraph about the lesson learned through the story.

There’s so much more to write about the past week and about this past weekend, but it is getting late and I think I will go get ready for tomorrow now! Braveen is eager to write another post and I think he will write about everything I left out in this post. I would just like to quickly thank Hilary, who is working at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning this summer, for coming to work with the kids at St. Gabriel’s this past week. She taught three lessons about the history of Mound Bayou, since this past week was Founder’s Week, the week leading up to the celebration of the founding of Mound Bayou. She also had very creative activities for each age group. The kids loved her activities and she was a huge help! Braveen will provide more details on what she did, I’m sure. We also had a fun trip to Memphis yesterday, which Braveen, Josh or I will have to comment on later as well.

Everything has been going well, and I continue to love my time here in the Delta. I can’t believe we only have two weeks left! It’s gone by so fast! I will treasure the time that I have left here. How wonderfully blessed I am to be able to experience everything that I have experienced this summer.

- Nina

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

At the Halfway Point - Reflections on the Last Few Weeks and June


It has been a while since I last posted. You'll have to excuse my hiatus. I've been M.I.A. for quite some time now. It’s so hard to believe the month of June is over! Where does the time fly? It feels like I just got here in Mississippi and now half my time is finished. That’s okay. It is has been an unforgettable one month. I have learned SO MUCH. I’ve also had more fun than I would have ever imagined. I love this place, my job, and my friends here.

Well, a lot has happened since I personally last posted over two weeks ago. First I’ll discuss our work at St. Gabriel’s. I can strongly say that our program has evolved into quite a defined and organized structure compared to what we originally started with. Our model has worked extremely well since we experimented with drastic implementations of the first two weeks such as the divided age groups, rotations, and the card system. Slowly but surely we continue to tweak it as we strive for the closest thing to perfection we can conceive (we’re light years away, but I feel we’ve come such a far distance in one month!). By week four, Nina, Josh, and I finally decided it was time to set up a seating chart to assuage the anarchy of kids wandering aimlessly throughout the day. It is now starting to show its effectiveness quite visibly. Everything requires a growing/incubation period. Then it becomes second nature to the kids. As both Nina and Josh described in their last posts, we’ve done a lot of activities from various subjects over the last two weeks. I feel we are doing a stellar job of stressing the academic component of our program. It would have been easy to just set up our camp as a formulaic babysitting ploy. Instead we decided from the get-go to emphasize a rigorous curriculum. It didn’t take long for us to start assigning these kids homework multiple nights a week. WE MEAN BUSINESS! Nina has been doing a phenomenal job teaching them the essential writing skills these kids are going to need for the future. Although it is frustrating and repetitive at times, she is patient to explain and go over the kids work with them time and again. She is exposing vital writing techniques to them that they will be able to apply in all essay writing they do from here on out. Josh has been doing massive work attacking the kids weaknesses and their passions often simultaneously. He has been drilling multiplication with a lot of the kids. But he is also doing a lot of Spanish, especially with the youngest kids, since they seem to like that. His epic Russian Revolution Seminar with the oldest age group is a huge hit that continues to be appealing. As Josh explained in his last post, it is the perfect lesson module of history to serve as a conduit to show the kids they can learn about ANYTHING they set their minds to. My work with Karate has been going really well every Wednesday. I often try to incorporate some other form of physical activity on non-Karate days to help allow the kids to release some of their energy. I’ve done all sorts of activities with the kids outside such as kickball, tag, basketball, dodgeball, outdoor exercises, etc. With the youngest and middle kids on others days, I’ve been teaching with different activities ranging from worksheets and coloring assignments. Last week I tried to teach the kids about the 7 continents, while I’ve been doing American History/ Independence Day lessons for this week. Drawing from the roots of my experiences as a child, I’ve been singing songs with the smaller kids. As I use the lyrics with the CD sing-a-long songs, I am working with reading with the kids too. This week we’ve been going with Patriotic Songs (such as America the Beautiful and The Star Spangled Banner), but I’ve used songs from Lauren Mayer’s First Grade Rocks too. These types of activities help to bring the “fun” to our program. The goal is to make our camp as education AND as fun as possible after all. We’ve been pretty good at doing this too. For example on Father’s Day we had the kids make Father’s Day Cards for nearly half the day. A while ago we did a whole paper plane making workshop with all the kids. As Nina taught her “hamburger model” with the kids, she gave them a cute gummy hamburger treat as well. Of course Josh is always real popular when he busts out the Freeze Dance for the kids at least once a week. All these different fun activities – along with snack time – help make our camp all the more enjoyable for the kids.

This week has been really great too. Monday was a pretty stressful day for me because our planned schedule fell a little out of place, so I ended up having the 5-7 years almost the ENTIRE day. Ouch. Today Vicki Stocking, the Robertson Scholars Program Summer Coordinator, came and visited us at St. Gabriel’s. It was nice that she got a chance to see us in action. Later that night she took all the Robertsons in Mississippi to dinner. The meal was delicious!!! It was great that she took time to visit us. I’m really touched with the Robertson staff in general for actually SHOWING how much they care for us by physically visiting us in person. Wow.

Outside of work, we have been having RIDICULOUS amounts of fun. Funny thing – in Cleveland, Mississippi we were warned that there is nothing to do. Guess what, though? We are NEVER bored. I find myself always entertained. As Nina mentioned in her last post, about ten of our friends came up from New Orleans two weekends ago. We had a crazy good time, and I can’t wait to visit them in New Orleans this upcoming July 4th weekend. The next day we went on a tour of the Mississippi Delta that our mentor here, Dr. Luther Brown (who is the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State) took us on. This past weekend was a ton of fun too. On Friday, Nina, Michael, and I made Quiche for dinner. It turned out AMAZING!!! People were raving that this was the best meal we had prepared yet. Ha ha, thanks for the recipe Mrs. Woolley! I can’t believe some of the dishes we make turn out so darn good. Either we are cooking prodigies or just super lucky with all the meals we cook (probably the latter…Ha ha). The same routine feelings of clueless uncertainty, at least for me, always mark the beginning of the cooking process as I assist Nina to prepare our meals. But they always turn out to be a GREAT success in the end!! I love it. On Saturday we had our Clarksdale tour. Lee Aylward, who works with Luther Brown at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, took us on the trip. As Josh mentioned in his last post, we made some really cool stops such as the Delta Blues Museum, the historic Riverside Hotel, Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero, and Cat Head’s Delta Blues and Folk Art store. Later that night we had a wonderful barbeque for our Robertson family + other friends/neighbors. Michael and Hilary were responsible for organizing the barbeque, but Nina and I helped. About 10-20 people were invited other than our Robertson family of 11 people here already. The actual turnout was about 5 other people. But it was still a totally fun night. The next day after attending a church service in Mound Bayou, we went to the Mississippi River and took a nice walk.

Finally I would like to end with a poem that was read at one of the Senior Devotionals that we attend on Fridays.
Be Thankful
By Lola Neff Merritt

Don’t ever forget to be thankful
For every blessing you find on your way;
Each small happiness is a measure
That weighs in for you day after day.
Hold on to the blessings you gather;
Fill your mind with the joy that they give.
Your whole life will take on new meaning…
Build on love and you truly will live.

This was read by one of the seniors that we spend time with on Fridays. It touched me so deeply. With all the difficulties of life, how easy it is for us to forget about how blessed we are. It took this simple message from this dearest elder to remind me just one more time…


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Good Times in Week 4

At St. Gabriel’s last week, we were blessed with five volunteers from Little Rock, Arkansas. They were absolutely invaluable and helped us to provide a lot more individual attention to the kids. Also, after breaking up into groups, they often times came up with their own games and miniature activities to help the kids learn.

I continued teaching the middle and younger kids Spanish. They really enjoy it, and for many of them learning new Spanish words is as natural as learning new words in English. We often play a game where the kids are broken down into teams and compete with one another to remember new words, and with the help of the volunteers last week Nina and I were able to set up a game of Spanish Bingo.

I’ve been teaching the older kids about the Russian Revolution. It’s not a very mainstream topic, but Nina, Braveen, and I decided that it would be good to introduce the kids to something that they might not learn in school. Many of the concepts in the story of the revolution are fairly standard (such as nobility, government structures, varying ideologies, etc.), and I believe that the event and its context have helped the kids to realize that they can relate to history even when they are unfamiliar with the topic.

The past week was also the last week for GED classes. I found it extremely rewarding to work with the students there, and I know Braveen and Nina loved the experience as well. The determination of the young men and women is simply amazing. We gave our students our cell phone numbers so that they could contact us for extra help, and we also let them know that we’re still available to tutor in the mornings. Hopefully we will be able to continue to work with them in the future.

On Thursday of last week, I asked Sister Donald Mary about starting up a documentary project focusing on the oral histories of the women in the senior program at St. Gabriel’s. Our tour of the Delta two weeks ago with Dr. Luther Brown, along with my time here at the Mercy Center, helped me to recognize the rich history of Mound Bayou. Unfortunately, much of this history is drastically underappreciated, due in part to the drastic economic downturn that has hit the greater Delta region. Several of the historic buildings have fallen into disrepair because the town lacks the funds to renovate them, and many of the resources needed for promotion of the town’s history simply aren’t available. The senior program at St. Gabriel’s has provided a wonderful platform for getting to know the older individuals in the community, and I believe that a project chronicling their stories will contribute greatly to the effort to preserve the history of Mound Bayou and the history of the Delta. The conversations I’ve had so far with the senior women of St. Gabriel’s have been truly inspiring, and I am extremely excited to talk with and learn from them.

This past weekend was spectacular. On Saturday, Ms. Lee Aylward from the Delta Center took us on a tour of Clarksdale. We went to the Delta Blues Museum, had a wonderful lunch at Ground Zero blues club, walked through the Riverside Hotel (where the blues singer Bessie Smith died), and visited other prominent sites around Clarksdale. On Saturday evening, we had a cookout at the house and invited some friends over from a student Methodist group at Delta State. The food was wonderful, and afterwards we played Taboo. On Sunday, Hillary, Erin, Michael and I drove to Vicksburg where we had a great lunch, took photos, and saw the Mississippi River. We even crossed into Louisiana for a little bit on the highway. Vicksburg is a beautiful city with a lot of history, but unfortunately we arrived a little late in the day, so many of the museums were closed.

This week has started out extremely well. I’m teaching the younger kids Spanish, the middle kids their multiplication tables, and the older kids the Russian Revolution. The multiplication tables are extremely important, because many of the middle children are behind in learning them, and multiplication serves as the foundation for a large amount of the math the kids will learn in the future.

I’m loving my time here in Mississippi, and I’m shocked at how quickly the time has gone by. I’m soaking up the music, the history, and the culture of the Delta, and I look forward to the upcoming weeks!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Wonders in Week Three!

The past week has been wonderful. Everything from working at St. Gabriel’s to having “family dinners” with the Robertson gang has been fun and exciting.

I have been having a great time continuing reading activities with the kids in our summer youth program. I just finished reading Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger with the 10-13 year old group. It was a huge success. I’m really glad that they enjoyed this book as much as I did when I was their age. Now we are about to begin a writing project. I hope to have every 10-13 year old write a polished five-paragraph essay about the book. We are going to work on this project in very small steps, including learning about essay structure, brainstorming about the reading question, generating an outline, writing a rough draft, editing and revising, writing a final draft, and typing up the essays in the computer lab. I think this will have to be a long-term, comprehensive project. My goals are to have every child have a firm foundation about essay structure and also to create a polished final work that they can take pride in. They were all very excited to read Wayside, and I hope some of that excitement will be translated into essay writing. Today I taught the “hamburger model” for essay writing. This was something I learned in elementary school, and it has stuck with me. The general notion is to think of the essay like a burger: the top bun is the introduction, the meat patties are the main ideas of each body paragraph, the condiments/cheese/lettuce/tomato are the examples and details in each body paragraph, and the bottom bun is the conclusion. Just like a burger is not complete without all the parts, and a burger would not be acceptable if the meat were on the outside and the bun were on the inside, etc., an essay must have all the right parts in the right order. I think they did well with the concept. We’ll see how the project develops!

The kids have also been doing other great work. I’ve continued to read picture books and do short art projects or worksheets with the 5-7 year olds and the 8-9 year olds. For example, we recently read a favorite book from my childhood, Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, and learned about syllables, and we also read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and learned about synonyms and antonyms. Braveen has been teaching math, including area and perimeter for the older two age groups, which has been going very well. He also continues to teach karate once a week. Josh has been teaching Spanish to the younger age groups, which they love, and has been teaching history to the older kids. Every day is busy, and we are usually very tired by the end of the day (at least I know I am!), but I think that now our tiredness stems from a lot of teaching and learning, and it is a satisfying feeling.

The rest of my summer experience has been going well too. This weekend we had ten Robertson Scholars who are spending their summer in New Orleans come visit us in the Delta, and it was great! We showed them around a bit and had lunch together in Indianola on Saturday and we went to Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero, in Clarksdale that night. It was a lot of fun. It felt great to have so many good friends together, and it was great to share summer experiences.

Sunday was also a fantastic day. We went on a tour of the Delta with Dr. Luther Brown, the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State. He is really an invaluable resource for the Robertson Scholars. We went on a great tour to many historic places, such as Dockery Farms, a large plantation labeled as the birthplace of the blues. It was also just wonderful to spend a day together, learning about our location and having quality conversations. All of my experiences in the past week – working at St. Gabriel’s, touring the Delta, having fun times and great conversations with friends – have made me really appreciate my community summer. I can’t believe 3 ½ weeks are already past! Of course, I am very much looking forward to the 4 ½ still to come!

- Nina