By Danielle Sekel (Musicology)
Since 2015, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC) has been working with Champaign County Head Start (Champaign and Savoy locations) to bring experiential learning opportunities to their early childhood education programs. Each month, I visit each Head Start location as a REEEC Graduate Assistant to introduce a particular country; during each visit, students learn about the country’s location, language, traditional clothing and events, food, arts, and are assigned a craft-based activity to complete that corresponds to our conversations.
As travel and in-person instruction came to a halt in March of 2020, the Head Start pre-kindergarten students were still able to see the world and collect stamps from each country we visited as we quickly pivoted to a virtual version of our traditional monthly outreach program. With their trusty ‘passports’ in hand, students were able to continue their multicultural learning adventures through pre-recorded instructional videos and individually packaged craft materials delivered to their homes by Head Start volunteers.
And, indeed, there has been much travel and discovery during these months of virtual asynchronous instruction. Justin Balcor, a fellow REEEC graduate assistant, introduced students to the country of Georgia and the Caucasus region, and everyone colored and designed their own Khevsurian chokhas, an example of traditional male dress. Students visited Kazakhstan and fashioned their own yurts out of felt and pipe cleaners. In January, I was able to introduce the animals I would make each year out of salty dough with my Slovak family members. They learned about the different symbolism that accompanies each animal and were able to make their own out of model clay.
We were also able to team up with two other area centers on campus to showcase other regions of the world. With the help of the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies (CEAPS), students learned about China and Lunar New Year festivities in February. Students also ventured to Mexico, thanks to the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and created their very own tissue paper flowers.
At the time of writing, our pre-school travelers still have two more destinations to reach before summer vacation begins. In April, we will return to the Caucasus to learn about Armenia and decorate pomegranates with tissue paper. Finally, in May, students will take a summery trip to Croatia to learn about the botanical garden in Zagreb. Each student will decorate a flowerpot to grow their favorite plant in this summer!
It has been a pleasure to curate a collection of virtual educational materials for the Head Start students, just as it has been to see the world alongside them from my home office!
Danielle Sekel is a graduate student in Musicology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.