Well, after a busy and fun-filled last week, I’m back at home. It was tough saying goodbye to everyone, but fortunately I am well-supplied with memories. And maybe I’ll find my way back to Louisiana someday. I’d certainly like to.
Today my sister, father and I indulged in “Musselmania” at a popular local brewery: Belgian beer, Belgian waffles, and of course the mussels (flown in from Washington for the occasion). We were listening to great live music and eating seafood off a common plate– I felt like I was in Louisiana again.
The band was playing Mississippi River-themed songs, which spurred me to think about some of St. Louis and Louisiana’s commonalities: the River, French heritage, river boats and fleur-de-lis (see St. Louis’ flag, above)… As fate would have it, the band started playing this song:
Baton Rouge Baton Rouge
I’m gonna get me some alligator shoes
Baton Rouge Baton Rouge
I’m gonna wear ‘em out in Baton Rouge
It was a Texas girl that broke my heart
Then she tore my truck apart
I guess I’ll get me another in Baton Rouge
I like Crawfish I like rice
I like girls that treat you nice
I’m gonna find me one in Baton Rouge
– Baton Rouge, by Guy Clark
It’s comforting to know that you can find a bit of Louisiana sparkle just about anywhere
Sunshine. Card games. Those plastic lanyards. Paint. All very camp-like things. But what about math? Reading? Wetlands? Invasive species? The water cycle?
It’s not your average summer camp fare. But the kids in our community needed something to tide their brains over during the summer… hence the summer enrichment program, started by area grandparents. The program provides all the fun of summer camp, with a little learning sprinkled in.
Before camp started, we weren’t sure what our role would be. It didn’t take long to realize that we aren’t just helping the teachers… we are the teachers. And with that responsibility comes a whole lot of planning. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to pull off an engaging and educational lesson without any preparation. If you want to give a lesson about a certain topic, you first need to gather the relevant information, understand it and distill it down to its most important concepts, the ones you want to share. Then you must find a way to communicate those concepts effectively, without sacrificing the fun.
Our best lessons so far have been hands-on and have united a couple different activities under the umbrella of one main topic. For example, we taught the kids about fish anatomy and then demonstrated gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish printing (the kids loved making their own prints). Integrating the core information into a game or craft project gives the kids something to remember. And having the students complete a worksheet or write in their journals afterwards 1) helps them process the lesson and 2) helps us see what they got out of it. Most importantly, you’ve gotta sell what you’re teaching. Reading dully off a page of notes just does not fly. You need to get them interested and excite them with your confidence. It’s not easy, and we’re still working on it.
Each age group has its own challenges and rewards. Younger kids have notoriously short attention spans, but it doesn’t take much to get them excited (e.g., glitter). Middle schoolers are fun because you can get into more complex subjects and activities. However, there’s the added challenge of passing the “cool test.” If the activity involves singing a cute song to the tune of Yankee Doodle, those kids are just going to sit there and stare at you. While laughing.
Eric and I are working with the middle school group. Because of the challenges I mentioned above, just finding an activity to do can be difficult. It has to pass the cool test, the fun test, the hands-on test, the relevant information test and the age-level appropriateness test. Planning – even for a short activity – can take a long time. And the scariest part? That you can be prepared to the utmost, and your lesson can still flop.
Sometimes you don’t sell it right. Sometimes they’re not in the mood. And the lesson feels perfunctory, like you’re just going through the motions without them or you deriving any benefit. It wears you down. But the good news is that we’re getting it. We’re winning the kids’ trust and respect by interacting with them every day. And we’re gradually gaining the confidence to make these lessons what they should be – awesome.
Picture Mt. Everest. Now, picture Mt. Everest made entirely of salt. Then picture that mountain underground, with its tip barely peeking up above sea level. And now you have Avery Island, Louisiana. Way back in the geologic past, sea beds evaporated and left behind salt in the form of a salt dome. American Indians discovered briny salt water on the island and boiled it to obtain salt, which they traded with other Indian tribes. The island later became home to the Avery family, hence the name.
During the American Civil War, a mine on the island produced millions of pounds of salt for the Confederacy. The mine was destroyed when Union troops invaded, but resuscitated by the family (now joined by Edmund McIlhenny). McIlhenny began experimenting with a hot sauce recipe, using hot peppers and salt from the island. His tinkering was successful, and now Tabasco sauce is popular worldwide. (Guam is the largest per-capita consumer of Tabasco sauce – apparently they even add it to beer!)
We visited Avery Island a few days ago. We toured the factory and got to taste lots of different Tabasco products (which I think was ultimately profitable for them, because the products were delicious and I bought some). Tabasco-flavored ice cream is pretty indescribable. Anyway, Avery Island also has a large bird sanctuary, called the Jungle Gardens, where we saw egrets and alligators and a somewhat random 900-year-old Buddha statue.
The Mississippi River looked the same, to be perfectly honest. Just as swift, just as muddy. The barges, bridges and riverboats weren’t too different either. But the further you get from the river, the more different the two cities look. [street view of St. Louis' riverfront, to compare]
New Orleans and St. Louis (my hometown) were both founded by the French. New Orleans has undoubtedly retained more of that influence, but it was fun to find similarities (such as French street or place names) during our trip there last weekend.
We indulged in beignets at Cafe du Monde and delicious char-broiled oysters at the New Orleans Oyster Festival (I’m still fantasizing about the oysters). However, I almost lost my lunch after watching competitors scarf down dozens of oysters during the festival’s eating contest. The champion ate 39 dozen oysters (do the math: 468 oysters) in eight minutes, a rate of roughly one oyster per second. Impressive, but a bit of a travesty in my mind. If you’re eatin’ good oysters, you should savor every bite.
We also stopped at Our School at Blair Grocery, in a neighborhood that was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina (it was underwater for a long period of time). Turner, who we met, is trying to prove that growing and selling food can help kids learn the skills they need to succeed. There’s an article about it here. We got a little dirty making mulch out of food scraps (fruit rinds etc. donated by Whole Foods). We also happened to meet Chewy, the teensiest cat I’ve ever seen:
Laundry detergent commercials usually boast how their product can remove stains and return clothes to their pre-dirty state. Well, our day on Friday read like one of those commercials in reverse. We started out with clean, sparkly clothes and brand-new boots. But by the end of the afternoon, our clothes were an entirely different color.
We spent the day planting marsh grass seedlings in Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, near New Orleans (see map). The effort was organized by the National Wildlife Federation, with funding from a lot of other agencies. We and other volunteers planted 26,000 seedlings in an open-water area. Over the next few months, the newly-planted marsh grass will grow and stabilize the area, collecting sediment and rebuilding habitat that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed. This first video sets the scene:
We rode out in loud airboats, which made for a pretty thrilling ride. Our destination was quite serene, albeit other-worldly somehow. It was impossible to walk around — if you tried, your boot would sink down and get stuck. Bye-bye boot. So instead we had to crawl around on our hands and knees. Sometimes the submerged ground was firm and sometimes it was mushy, making the whole experience pretty funny and unpredictable (see video below).
Seedlings had been dropped all around the planting area in burlap bags. We untangled each individual seedling, and made a hole for it by punching our arms into the muck, up to our elbows or deeper. When finished, the green tops of the plants stuck out above the water. It was great to see how our efforts could make such a tangible difference.
This past week and a half has been full of yummy encounters with Louisianan cuisine. One Saturday, after we attended a Gulf Lagniappe Wetlands Workshop (pictures here), we were kindly introduced to a crawfish dinner by friends from Bayou Grace Community Services (pictures here). In preparation for dinner, we ordered about 65 pounds of crawfish! I think at first all of us DukeEngagers thought to ourselves that it would be too much food. However, we quickly learned that such a large quantity of crawfish was needed because you only eat about 1/3 to 2/5 of each crawfish.
The crawfish took up the entire table. After a little bit of guidance and practice, we finally mastered the art of eating crawfish. Also, along with the crawfish, we had some delicious potatoes and corn on the cob.
Our delightful encounters continued as we visited a Cajun French senior center last week. This time around we ate beignets, which consist of a square of fried dough, sprinkled with sugar powder. Yum!
Louisiana is also known for its Po’ Boys, jambalayas, and gumbo.
Po’ Boy: your typical sandwich, but instead it’s served with French bread and usually with fried seafood/meat
Jambalaya: Rice with shrimp, chicken, and/or vegetables.
Gumbo: A soup or stew thickened with okra or rice; it contains meat, vegetables, etc.
Last Saturday we took part in a workshop about saltwater marshes, held at LUMCON. Following a lecture on marshes by researcher Alex Kolker, we went out on the Acadiana, one of LUMCON’s research vessels. And we saw dolphins!
Once we reached Terrebonne Bay, we ran a trawl net behind the boat for about 10 minutes. Then we pulled up the net (see video) to take a look at what critters were swimming in the water column. Here’s video of a pufferfish that we caught:
Becca Bayham is a rising senior at Duke. She hails from St. Louis, MO and is studying environmental science and earth & ocean science. During the school year, she blogs for DukeResearch.
Tuana Phillips is a rising junior studying environmental science. She also happens to be awesome.
Becca and Tuana are blogging about their experiences volunteering in coastal Louisiana as part of DukeEngage (a summer service program sponsored by Duke University). More about our projects and DukeEngage in general.