Afterschool program helps college students learn while teaching

When I signed up to teach a course for Adventures in Learning, I never expected the program to be so aptly titled. For a program that places Williams students alongside elementary school students in a pleasant learning environment, it has been remarkably turbulent.

Adventures in Learning is a program that provides after-school enrichment classes for students at Williamstown Elementary School. It uses the resources of the community by inviting college students and community members to act as course instructors. The topics of the courses represent the diverse interests of the instructors, with subjects ranging from astronomy to cooking, poetry to botany and even football and Chinese.

The goal of the program, as the brochure clearly conveyed, is “to encourage students of all ages to think in different ways, to develop their love of learning, to make new friends and to enjoy adventure!”

Enjoy “adventure?” That sounded like something I could do. I signed up with two of my friends, Estalyn Marquis ’06 and Nikhar Gaikwad ‘06. Our first task was to design a course proposal. After considering several options, we settled on a class about world mythology. Choosing a title for the course was difficult; several of the discarded options included “Boo Yah for Mythology,” “Mytha-what?!” and “Tell Us a Story, Grandfather.” We finally decided “Mythology: World Tour” would be a safer choice. (Editor’s note: “Mytha-what?! would have been the best title ever.)

The number of courses offered has more than doubled since last year. Cindy Johnson, the director of Adventures in Learning, attributes this to a motivated freshman class and the Sept. 11 attacks, which have “caused people to look outwardly more.” Additionally, the president’s office gave her some “leads” about how to recruit students.

Nearly three dozen courses are offered this year, with some of the prospective highlights including “Tie-Dye It All,” “Poetic License” and “Ocean Life Unlimited.”

Estalyn, Nikhar and I dove into the task headfirst. We came to the first class in togas. “It’s Greek mythology day!” we chirped. The surly gang of second and third graders didn’t look impressed. We were the kind of people their mothers told them not to talk to. We weren’t enthusiastic instructors. We were loonies in sheets.

We began our lesson by “assigning” each child a certain Greek god or goddess. This was our first mistake. Apparently, some gods are “cooler” than others. For example, were a head-to-head deathmatch to be conducted, Apollo could totally kick Hermes’ butt. This led to some bickering among the boys, and despite my authoritative warning of “seriously guys, cut it out,” they kept at it for a good while.

After that, nothing went right. The myth we had chosen, Jason and the Argonauts, was too long and complicated. We chose a poor color for paper used to make crowns, so that when they tried to decorate them with paints and pens, only dark splotches and darker splotches showed up on the “Greek” head ornaments.

We collapsed at the end of the hour- and-a-half-class, our togas now tattered and worn, mine newly colorful from a paintbrush attack by a mutinous second grader. “What have we done?” we asked. “Have we awakened the children’s inner devils?”

Principal David Rempell’s words were never truer. “In this program, everyone becomes educators,” he said. We were certainly being schooled by these kids. Yet, taking his message to heart, we returned the next week having learned a valuable lesson.

This time toga-less, we prepared a streamlined, no-frills lesson plan. This week, we would be studying Chinese mythology. Estalyn, our resident expert with a semester of Chinese language under her belt, filled us in on a few traditional stories and games. We were ready.

I was nervous stepping into the classroom. “Maybe they’ve organized,” I thought. “It could be a trap.” But instead of rebellion, we were greeted with enthusiasm. They seemed thrilled to be learning about Chinese mythology, and once we exorcised their excess energy with a few jumping jacks, they were ready to settle down for the story.

We all sat on the floor as Estalyn read us “Tikki Tikki Tembo.” A little girl named Grace crawled into my lap, and I glowed with affection and a sense of acceptance. We played “the dragon game” (which is really “Telephone” with a Chinese-sounding name), and then wrapped up the day by decorating some Chinese dragons.

Although we encountered some “discipline problems” – or, more accurately, “respect issues” – there was a dramatic change between the first and second classes. Something happened to both Estalyn, Nikhar and I and to the students. And then I understood: we were learning.

“This is an amazing opportunity for a generation of learners,” Johnson said. She’s right. It’s easy to forget the simplest lessons when you’re caught up in essays and lectures – things like how long it takes glue to dry, what words you can’t say around young kids and how one should not talk back to a third grader with a mohawk or to his parents. But, moreover, you learn to adapt, come back strong and claim respect, something which we often forget at Williams.

I was still basking in my sense of authority when a girl named Katherine pulled me aside. “Can I ask you a question?” she said.

“Of course,” I said warmly, crouching down.

“It’s just, I was wondering. Why do all of you college students smell the same?”

My concerned-yet-capable expression turned to confused embarrassment.

“Uh, I don’t know. What do we smell like?”

“Oh, it’s not bad,” she said. “You just all smell the same.”

I couldn’t answer her question.

So, it may take more than two classes to engender respect from elementary school students. But Nikhar, Estalyn and I have plans. This week, we’re studying Native American mythology. Everyone knows that General Custer died at Little Bighorn. What our lecture presupposes is: what if he didn’t? With any luck, they’ll be more impressed by loincloths than togas.

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