CENTRAL FALLS — Call Naffi Koulibaly and Emily Baptista a study in contrasts.
During a game called “Willow in the Wind,” Baptista — a sixth-grader at Baldwin Elementary School in Pawtucket — jumped at the chance to participate. With her “teammates” surrounding her in a tight circle, she was asked to stand up straight, to consider herself as rigid as a broomstick, cross her arms across her chest, close her eyes and lean forward.
Baptista chuckled as she felt her teammates' hands gently guide her around the circle. More importantly, she had been asked to trust in those people, understand they weren't about to let her fall.
Then there was Koulibaly, a sixth-grader at Central Falls' Institute for Learning, who admitted being nervous about attempting something she deemed dangerous.
She nevertheless tried, and received applause after successfully completing the task.
“I was kind of scared because I didn't want to fall,” Koulibaly explained afterward. “I decided to try it because it's something new. I saw the other kids doing it, and I figured they wouldn't let me down. In Week One, there's no way I would've tried it because I didn't know them. Now that I know them better, I felt like I could trust them. It turned out fun.”
This was just one of many “Up to the Challenge?” games members of The College Crusade of Rhode Island's Crusade Adventure and Academics Program, or “CAAP,” accomplished on Saturday inside the Veterans Memorial Elementary School.
CAAP — a 10-week, Saturdays-only program that began back on March 5 — is designed to improve these middle-schooler Crusaders' self-esteem and help them develop skills in problem solving, team building and healthy risk-taking. It also has a writing component.
“I wasn't afraid at all because I trust them, and I knew they wouldn't let me fall to the floor,” Baptista grinned. “Now I know the people in my group (entitled Team Eternity) much better, because this is the seventh week. My friend, Maria, encouraged me to apply to The College Crusade, and I'm glad she did. I want to go to college someday.
“I want to be a lawyer, and, if that doesn't work, I'd like to learn how to cook,” she added. “I thought we all did terrific. We all got into circle, and everyone trusted each other. They overcame being scared.”
CAAP Facilitator Dan DeCelles couldn't have been happier with the group effort, one he deems especially important to help pre-teens gain and maintain an interest in attending college.
“We want to develop skills that are usually ignored in schools but are essential to success in school — getting to college, graduating, then being successful in the workforce,” stated DeCelles, who now teaches Interactive Literacy at Veterans Memorial School after several years of English instruction at Central Falls High and Calcutt Middle.
“The most important of those skills is self-esteem, building self-confidence, creative problem solving, leadership, communication and teamwork,” he continued. “We also want them to reflect, to think about how things relate to each other, and evaluate themselves in the grand scheme of things. It's all about self-identity.”
DeCelles admitted he has a lot of help conducting this program, which caters to middle school students from Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket, every Saturday.
He not only has Site Manager Meaghan Brunelle, herself a former Crusader and CAAP mentor who currently works an ESL instructor at Woonsocket Middle School at Villa Nova, but also six mentors.
“The mentors are freshmen through seniors, and, in this session, they're from Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University and Providence College,” he noted. “They deserve a lot of credit, because they're not volunteers, but they're not doing this for the money, either. They have to give up their entire Saturdays, and even their Friday nights.
“They're dedicated to aiding the students in learning the skills that got them to college. They're using their experiences, which is vital component to this program. It's the connection they build with the kids that keeps them coming back.
“Initially, I had no idea what The College Crusade was, or the power of this approach to education, but I do now, and I love it,” he added. “It's experiential, hands-on, collaborative and it works real-life issues into a very healthy dose of play. Here, we have education in the guise of recreation, and we always try to do several things at once in our games.”
On this day, during the early morning (they start at 9:15 a.m.), DeCelles and his mentors conduct Team “Rock, Paper, Scissors” or “Brain Gym” contests; and, from 9:45-10:45 a.m., they move to the academic component, which focuses on writing poetry, fiction or compositions.
After a half-hour lunch at noon (where camaraderie abounds), the usual 38 students divide into their three groups and play other games, including “Pipe Dreams,” “Blindfold Polygon,” “Almost Endless Circles” and “Atlantic Crossing.”
“When we start off with icebreakers, or 'get-to-know-you situations,' the root we want to reach is 'Who are you?' and 'How do you think you present yourself to others?'” DeCelles offered. “We may do what looks like ridiculous things with swim noodles, beach balls or jump ropes, but that's just to start the conversations about teamwork, leadership, values, listening to each other, collaboration and consensus.
“You can see and feel it, how these students have bonded,” he added. “When the Crusaders first come to us, they're quiet and timid. You can tell they want to be with their friends, but that's not what CAAP is about. I also think they expect a school-like setting, but we give them the flip side.
“As the program moves along, you see them mature and gain confidence by leaps and bounds. It's in the way they interact with each other, the relationships they build with others and the richness, or substance, of their conservations about home, school and community.”
Nowhere was that more evident this past Saturday than in the school library, where mentor Ben Perez prepared his team for “Pipe Dreams.”
In it, Perez gave about 10 students canal-like sections of wood, perhaps four feet in length, and asked them to keep a rubber ball “alive” as it rolled down each section. The goal? For the person holding the final link in this bridge to drop it into a bucket – without it hitting the floor.
Time and again, as the students hustled past each other to create another link in the chain, they groaned when the ball dropped. After about 20 minutes, the kids actually had steered the ball with their wooden “half-pipes” approximately 97 feet across the library floor.
Undaunted and determined, they kept trying, and finally succeeded in reaching the bucket, at least 100 feet from their starting point.
“The purpose of this task is teamwork, communication and using strategy,” stated Angie Cardona, a mentor and RWU junior interested in pursuing law. “Another thing we're really trying to get across is trial and error. We're showing them they may not reach their goal on the first try, unless they're lucky, but they have to keep trying.
“We're also trying to teach them that different ideas may give them a better outcome.”
Halimatou Diallo, a sixth-grader at Potter-Burns Elementary in Pawtucket, knew where her pals had gone wrong in their previous attempts.
“We didn't get it right away because we didn't connect the tubes well,” she said. “But we finally made it. That was fun because we all worked together for a common goal. In the beginning, I wasn't sure if we'd make it, but then we started communicating better.”
Stated Ronny Jimenez, a Segue sixth-grader: “It felt good to succeed, and I think we did because we teamed up and listened to each other; we followed each other's leads. This helps you think about how to do something right.
“I want to go to college someday – I'm not sure where – and get an education, a career. It's the best way. I hear people say if you don't get an education, how far can you go? How can you read or write or get a career? I really want to be a professional baseball player, but if that doesn't work out, I have a second plan; I want to be a lawyer. I like watching the TV shows, how (attorneys) seem to tell the truth and defend people who shouldn't be in trouble. That's cool.
“I think stuff like this will prepare me not only for college, but high school, too,” he continued. “I like these people. I feel like they're my friends. We've been together now for six-seven weeks and, in that time, we got to know each other. I like them, and I trust them. I also think they got to know me for who I really am.”
In “Atlantic Crossing,” mentor Alicia Pari, a North Providence resident in the Providence College Teaching Certification Program, designed a secret map using the tiles on the hallway floor. She then asked the kids to take what they believed to be the proper path through the “fake minefield,” and the observers had to remember where the previous student had failed.
When one student misstepped, he or she yelled, “Boom!” then walked back to the group as another began his or her journey.
Once it ended, Pari requested input as to what the contingent did well, and kids hollered, “Teamwork!” or “Communication!”
“Oh, I like that, communication, but what else?” she said.
“Trust!” noted one. “Not yelling!” offered another.
“Good, now say 'Not yelling!' louder!” Pari grinned.
The eight students laughed heartily.
“When you go to school, are you always going to step forward easily, or are you going to encounter problems along the way?” she asked. “When something goes wrong, you have to make changes, right? If you make a mistake, that's OK, because you can make those changes and move on. And, are you always going to be alone on your path? Who's going to be there to help you?”
The answers came quickly – “Friends,” “Parents,” “Brothers and sisters,” “Teachers.”
Pari smiled again. For this game, her group found success.
“That was challenging,” revealed Samantha DiPrado, a sixth-grader at Woonsocket Middle School at Villa Nova. “You had to figure out the path, and it was hard. I know I made a couple of steps without making a mistake, and that made me feel good. I know I helped our team further along.
“I applied for The College Crusade because I wanted to get a college scholarship,” she added. “I want to be a fashion designer someday. I like clothes, and I'd like to make them for people.”
When asked if she would've preferred to stay home in bed earlier that morning, she grinned, “I do like sleep, but I like this better. It's fun, and I like the people … You know, I think I'm smarter now. I've learned about teamwork, and how to get along in the real world. That's what they're trying to teach us, isn't it?”