Tara Humphries’ students traveled to Senegal this summer by virtual reality.
They saw and heard the markets of Dakar and visited the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return on Gorée Island.
Humphries, a teaching artist who works for the nonprofit Circle of Support, spends her summers teaching elementary students in southern Dallas about world culture.
At 8 a.m. on a Tuesday in June, she is at J.N. Ervin Elementary, greeting the day in an unremarkable classroom with a second-grader who’s helping to host “world culture day” of this summer school.
Around the classroom, tables are set up to represent four continents with items for smelling, tasting and touching.
“Why do we put Africa first?” Humphries asks her students.
The reply: “Because that’s where we all come from.” Humans originated there about 7 million years ago, she reiterates.
Much of Humphries’ curriculum is teaching her students about food.
They sniff and talk about spices — where they come from and what impact they have on the world.
Earlier in the summer, students made spring rolls and mango lassi, an Indian drink that combines yogurt, cardamom and fresh mango.
They made date balls using a recipe that was found on Egyptian pottery from 1600 BC.
About 98 percent of Ervin’s students receive free and reduced lunch, a poverty indicator. And most of them live amid a food desert, where fresh quality food is difficult to buy.
“We are all family around food,” Humphries says. “They love it. They’re so excited to come to class, and they’re thrilled to taste the food.”
Talk of food leads to talk of culture and even politics.
A fifth-grade student asked, “How did all this start with Russia?”
They want to talk about racism and what kids are like in other countries.
Humphries started out volunteering for Circle of Support, a nonprofit founded about 20 years ago by current Dallas ISD trustee Bernadette Nutall that pays for summer enrichment for students in second through eighth grades. Their eight-week program runs Monday-Friday, and students spend three hours a day on academics and three hours a day on creative arts.
Another nonprofit, Dallas Afterschool, paid for the six virtual-reality kits.
“They can really get the kids excited about learning in a different way,” says Dallas Afterschool CEO Christina Hanger.
The nonprofit works with more than 175 afterschool and summer programs in schools, churches, recreation centers and apartment complexes.
Dallas Afterschool has trained more than 1,300 adults for afterschool programs. They learn anger management techniques, youth development, how to manage a classroom, social-emotional learning tactics and “teaching kids how to be more resilient and make better decisions and be responsible,” Hanger says.
Still, there is a critical need for more. Only about 15 percent of students in Dallas County receive learning outside of school hours, Hanger says.
“Low-income kids lose two months of literacy skills through the summer,” she says.
Dallas Afterschool’s own research shows that as many as 70 percent of students who participate in their programs show no signs of that “summer slide.”
Back in Tara Humphries’ classroom, kids are tasting tea, feta cheese and even caviar.
“I’m really lucky they keep letting me come back,” says Humphries, a writer who also worked as an event DJ for many years.
“Not only do we get to cook and taste the flavors of the world, the students get to experience the places we’re studying through virtual reality.”