Thirteen undergraduate students and Bryan Duff, senior lecturer in the School of Integrative Plant Science, traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a week over winter break to teach video production to Park Elementary School students.
“Each of my students spent most of the day in a single classroom, helping that classroom’s teacher and students with whatever they needed,” Duff said of the trip, part of the Winter Session program from the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. “But we also spent part of each day teaching students in grades three to five how to use video-making equipment.”
As part of the school’s initiative to expand the use of project-based learning, Duff and the students worked with children on video production skills to create public service announcements and document projects, such as the school’s “living museum” of African-American history. At the end of the trip, the team of Cornell students gave the school a video-making kit to continue developing their skills.
“The students and I think of ourselves as a team – Devotees of Park Elementary (DOPE),” Duff said. “We are meeting each week this spring to help the school with fundraising and motivating the children to read and write as much as they can.”
Park Elementary School is identified by the state as “underperforming,” and its students are predominantly African-American and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Cornell undergraduate Carúmey Stevens ’19, a human development major, said that working with the school reminded her of her own experience and allowed her to “see the need for change.”
“As a black woman, who came from an underperforming school similar to Park Elementary, I constantly reminded them that my schooling experience was much like theirs and now I’m in college,” Stevens said. “I wanted them to understand above anything else that the ‘kind of student that goes to college’ is them. They are intelligent, capable and equipped. College can truly be the next step for them.”
Stevens noticed the disparity between the lack of resources at Park Elementary compared with expensive charter schools in the area. Working in the classroom, she saw that many students struggled with word formation and orientation, initially thinking that many students were dyslexic. The teacher said that many students struggled due to the lack of a blackboard in the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, the Cornell group received a tour of the construction site of a children’s museum in Baton Rouge meant to celebrate and support learning through play and to act as a bridge to neighboring communities. They also toured school playgrounds in Baton Rouge designed and built by a Louisiana State University engineering professor and her undergraduates as part of a long-running service-learning course.
For Shannon McLeod ’19, a biology and society major, the service trip allowed her to experience a new community and culture and “understand the true value of … advocating for brighter futures for the country’s youth.”
“Service learning allows [Cornellians] to see the need for our knowledge and skills both domestically and internationally,” McLeod said. “We underestimate our potential as college students ... but the first step to changing anything is showing up.”
Dylan Jacobs ’17, a College of Human Ecology student who aspires to become a teacher, said the trip was intense and life-changing. As a genderqueer student, Jacobs was able to see how open-minded the children were to asking questions about gender identity.
Reflecting on the experience, Jacobs said, “There is so much hope in the new generation, and all we need to do is find the best way to foster and support their drive to learn.”
Barbara Esuoso ’19 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.