Transition-to-Adult Retreat: an Outsider’s View (Guest Post #11)

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This is guest post #11 in a series written by Jianping (Corey) Yang. You can read more about these posts and about the author HERE.

It has been a lot of fun having the eighth graders around for a learning retreat (in mid may—read a blog entry about the retreat HERE). This is actually part of their education. As an outsider, I had the opportunity to observe the activities “at a distance” and communicate with some of them. In my view, this program is helpful for them considering the high dropout rate of Navajo high school students.

Activities were indoors and outdoors

The four day retreat was quite intense. The activities combined both education and entertainment and were held both indoors and outdoors. They involved a lot of creativity and reflection. When it came to the part about presenting their personality, they were asked to make a collage. Although the pictures and symbols were limited for them to choose from, the way the collage was made certainly showed some traits of personality. Much of the lectures were about people and society outside of students’ main experience. Randy and Jill mentioned the different ways of thinking of different people. The effects of such lectures would be to familiarize the students with the complexity of the real world on the one hand, and motivate them to pursue a different life on the other.

Outside, students participated in a competition by completing certain fun tasks in pairs, such as shooting hoops. It was more of a fun activity than a competition. Our two dogs participated as well. One of the nights was a campfire night. Besides the fire, the students were joking, watching videos on the phone, or just careless talking. It continued until late that night.

Job-related training was one of the most important components of this program. The students were advised on how to write a resume, how to balance personal interests and actual job, how to do an interview, etc. For others, it is still too early to receive such training, but for these students, it may be practical.

closing activity of retreat

Overall, this retreat program provided an excellent opportunity to prepare the students for their future, especially when they look for a job. It was aimed at motivating the students to think about their future and promote their confidence to solve problems. It emphasized concepts such as adaptation, aspiration and achievement. Hopefully, they will reflect on this program and find it helpful for their transition to the next chapter of their life.

(Note from Jill Emmelhainz–after a rocky start for a few students, currently all 12 young people are still attending highschool. This is a victory compared to past years when by now in the semester there have usually been 1 or 2 that have already either dropped out or been suspended! As we have met some of these kids in the community, they talk happily about the retreat and beg to have a reunion retreat. We are hoping to schedule one for spring break. Please keep praying for each one of these young people as they go against their current culture and (for some) against family pressures as they work to stay in school.)

Musings at the NM State Fair

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A few weeks ago I had the privilege of being a chaperone as students from the local school had a field-trip to the NM State Fair. I was responsible for 2 students (plus my daughter) and their 5th grade teacher joined us for the day as well.

“My” girls meet Smokey the Bear

We wandered the fairgrounds and enjoyed the usual things: shows, animals, art displays and 4H projects. The kids picked up lots of freebies and handouts from the Department of Natural Resources, and the various branches of the Armed Services, and Science groups, and Libraries, and more. (You can see photos from the day HERE.)

I enjoyed spending time with the girls. It was interesting to see what they found intriguing and what things bored them. It was fun to share my love of “agua de sandia” (watermelon water—a favorite drink from time in Mexico) with them. I was pleased to see that the tacky wares in the vendor booths were no temptation (at least to “my” girls—not talking about many of the other kids who returned to the buses as the end of the day with amazing money-wasters!)

Behind the up-front, oh-so-typical story of kids going to the fair is another story. It’s a story that I’ve been pondering. Let me share a few pieces with you…

I tutor one of these girls—let’s call her Dee. Many days she is sullen and withdrawn. It can be hard to engage her in what we are working on. At one point, she and I had an in-your-face argument. You don’t need to know the details…it is enough to say that I wrote an apology and an affirmation of the value and worth I see in Dee. I assumed our relationship, which was tenuous to start with, was irrevocably broken. The principal herself wondered if it would be more effective for someone else to work with Dee. I chose to stick with it for a little longer to see what might happen.

Imagine my surprise, then, during a tutoring session the day before the fair trip, when Dee asked me if she could be in my group. WOW! But I knew she was bringing money for a ride band…and I don’t believe spending the day on the midway is an appropriate use of a school funded trip to the fair. I gently explained that my group would NOT taking time for any rides, and suggested she would probably be happier in another group.

The next morning, I discovered that Dee was assigned to my group after all. I suggested that she might want to trade and be in someone else’s group…but she chose to stick with me. That made me both happy and worried that a no-rides-policy might yet again break relationship between us.

Our vote for “Best of Show” quilt

Once we got to the fair, Dee, Kay, and my daughter, were happy to follow my suggestions about which shows to see and which exhibits to visit. They asked to walk through the petting zoo—commenting that their grandmas had sheeps and goats, too. Dee asked once or twice about rides, but didn’t argue when I pointed out she was the only one in our group with money to pay for rides.

Eventually, Dee quietly asked if everyone could put their money together to share the cost of rides. That seemed totally unreasonable to me, since Dee had $25, my daughter had only $5, and Kay had no money to spend at the fair. However, Dee persisted. She quietly insisted that if the money was pooled together, she would be happy to share.

Sharing the rides…

I finally gave in, and the girls enjoyed a few rides together in the last 30 minutes before time to leave the fair to head home. Instead of a day full of unlimited rides, Dee had only 3 rides. But she was happy. After all, she had done the rides together with her friends. They had shared their money, and their fun.

I can’t get this picture out of my mind. In my Anglo world, it is only sharing if everyone is (somewhat) equal in what they contribute. Otherwise, it is either a gift or charity for one to pay for others. In my Anglo world, an expectation of “sharing” can become a burden, or can cause the giver to feel taken advantage of.

…sharing the fun!

But that wasn’t Dee’s world. She was happy: happy to spend far more than the others to pay for everyone to ride. As long as each person put everything they had “into the pot,” Dee felt that they had all shared the cost of the rides. It was a gentle, face-saving way for everyone to enjoy the special occasion.

It makes me wonder: we work hard to break the “dependency culture” out here. We see how the expectation of hand-outs from Anglos too often undermines the Navajo taking care of each other. But perhaps there is another way…a way to pool resources…a way for everyone to walk in mutual respect, taking joy in sharing with each other.

Little Stories from Big Writers

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Since January I have tutored a group of 2nd and 3rd grade students twice weekly in math and reading. We have fun together, writing stories, taking turns reading out loud, and playing a variety of math games. I’m not sure who looks forward to our time more…me or them? I am proud to report that all three of them made gains in both subjects based on test scores. I’m hoping that we will continue to spend regular time together next school year.

little guys

My “Little Guys” writing group

At the end of the year, I gathered the best of our writings into a short book, complete with photos and a few drawings. It was interesting to see how much their writing improved in just a few short months!

I would love to share the book with any of you who are interested. Just leave me a comment (on facebook or here on the blog) or email me. I will happily send you a pdf copy of this simple, fun little book!


Playing with “my” 1st Graders

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I have had SO much fun this past year as I have gotten to “play” with the 1st grade class at Lybrook School. There is something delightful about walking into the cafeteria or into the classroom or onto the playground and hearing, “Mrs. E, Mrs. E.” And even when the “mob” threatens to tip me over, it is gratifying to be buried in a group hug when these little ones see me. Can I keep them at this delightful age forever?!!

1st graders

Here are links to posts about some of the fun we have had together this year:

MONET Art Project

VAN GOGH Art Project

General FUN in the classroom


8th Grade Retreat: Transition to Adulthood

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Success is liking yourself, liking what you do,

and liking how you do it.

–Maya Angelou

We had the privilege of spending 3 ½ days with the 8thgrade class from the local school to help them gain the skills they need to succeed in high school. Finishing high school can be a challenge for many young people. For students in this area, it is an almost insurmountable challenge: only 15% will finish high school due to cultural stresses, peer pressure, and lack of perceived usefulness of a diploma.


Fearless (giggly) Guys


Brave (talkative) Girls

Each day of the retreat, we focused on a different part of the above quote. We used a variety of outdoors activities, art projects, large group discussions, and small group discovery projects to help students actively engage with each day’s focus.

Mr E teaching outdoors

Group Discussions…indoors and out

Day one helped students define who THEY are as individuals. There is a high priority on group settings in Navajo culture: time is spent with close friends and family and identity is found in relationship with those people. Little emphasis is put on the individual in any setting.


Making “This is ME” posters

We did target shooting with no target identified and had the students run a race with no marked finish line. This helped them to understand it is hard to “win” if you don’t know what you are shooting for. They also experienced first hand that merely following what others were doing wasn’t an indicator of success.


Target Shooting…

target spears

…with pool-noodle “spears”

They decided on a personal definition of “success.” They identified their strengths and their personality types. They worked to figure out what gives meaning to their lives and what makes each one of them unique in their world. They learned about cultural differences, as we stressed that we were NOT asking them to give up their Navajo culture but were challenging them to become proficient in both Navajo and Anglo cultures. Finally, they began to identify a personal vision of what they want their lives to look like 10 years from now: housing, transportation, family, hobbies, etc.

comfy couches

…lots of writing about individual ideas in Student Portfolios

Day Two started with a timed obstacle course. First, the “resources” they needed were hidden and they had to go on a search to find the items they needed to complete each task: water guns, pool-noodle “spears,” a jump rope, a basketball, and more. When they re-ran the obstacle course with all resources right beside the task locations, they finished the race in less than half the time it took for the first attempt. This introduced the students to the daily theme of defining what they want in life, and identifying what resources they need to get there.

obstacle course run

Running to get to the next “task” in the Obstacle Course

obstacle course water guns

Water guns are useful for more than “tasks” in the Obstacle Course!

A main focus of Day Two was setting a realistic budget for their personal lifestyle choices. Some students had modest wants, needing $20-25 per hour to meet their vision. Other students wanted to live in large cities, drive fancy cars, and spend time traveling for pleasure. They were shocked to find out they would need $50-60 per hour to pay for their chosen lifestyles! This project was followed by identifying what types of jobs might meet these financial goals, including a look at what level of schooling would be required to get those jobs. Rather than “preaching” at them, this discovery-based project helped students come to their own conclusions about what they really want out of life.

setting budgets

Setting Individual Budgets for their Ideal Lifestyles

Day Three helped students identify what they needed to do to live the life they envisioned. We introduced them to more jobs than they were originally aware of. We looked at how to make good decisions, how to avoid making excuses, and how to take responsibility for your own decisions and actions. We finished with some practical tips on how to quiet fears and overcome obstacles.

closing program

The closing program reminded students that, although they must make individual choices, they are not alone in facing challenges.

Finally, on Day Four the students wrote a resume, gathered information for job applications, and completed a mock-interview with Mr. Emmelhainz. After returning to the school, they made a presentation about the retreat to the 7thgraders. They also showed their portfolios to the school principal and other adults.

job interview

Mock Job Interview with Mr. E — can you hear the students’ knees knocking?!


Reporting back to adults at school…

The week was not, of course, all work. There was free time to explore the rocks, play on the playground, and hang out listening to music.

rock play

Playing on the rock wall at the back of the Lybrook property

video games

Video gaming was popular

We also had a campfire one evening, complete with S’mores.


Campfire with s’mores…yum!

The following night, we had Game Night. Randy treated them to the junk food they had been craving all week. Students played poker, wii, and watched a movie. Staying in a “dorm” was a novel experience for most of the students, something we hadn’t thought about in advance, but good practice for those planning to stay in dorms for high school.

junk food

Junk Food “heaven” 🙂

poker night

Game Night included a competitive round of Poker

All-in-all this was an excellent experience for everyone involved. Hopefully the students are better prepared to make choices about their futures, not just follow the crowd into oblivion. It also helped us build closer relationships with many of the students which should make it easier to keep connection with them as they move out of this area for their high school years. We hope to be able to spend mentoring-time with many of them on a weekly basis as they transition to ninth grade.

 Go confidently in the direction of your dreams;

Live the life you have imagined!


Culture Day

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This past Friday most of the students and staff from Lybrook School traveled up to Gallina for the Jemez Mountain School District’s CULTURE DAY. Much of the district is Chicano (some of whose families came to New Mexico 300-400 years ago!) so the date is always the closest Friday to Cinco de Mayo. Students come from other ethnic groups as well, so this day is meant to celebrate the heritage of the various groups of students in the 3 schools in the district.

After the program, there were a variety of food booths, and info booths outside. Students had fun milling around, trying a variety of activities (such as a fun maze, and hula-hooping) and eating lots and lots of JUNK food 🙂

Here are photos of some of the most interesting dances from the program:

eagle dancers

Eagle Dancers — traditional Pueblo Indian dance

eagle dance drummers

Drummers for the Eagle Dancers — the older man started this internationally recognized group many years ago to keep teens from drinking.

Eagle Chick

Isn’t this Eagle Chick adorable?!

los viejos

Kindergartners dancing as “Los Viejos” (the old ones) were quite entertaining!

latino dances

I always love the energy of Latino Dancing…no matter where I see it.

walk in beauty

Lybrook 1st Graders signed the words to “Walk in Beauty”

ribbon dance 1

Lybrook 2nd Graders perform the Ribbon Dance

ribbon dance 2

Another view of the Ribbon Dance

basket dance

Lybrook 3rd Graders perform the Basket Dance


Our oh-so-Anglo, oh-so-white daughter joined her 4th grade class in singing “The Four Sacred Mountains”

Poetry Contest Entry

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There is a wonderful library in Farmington. One of the activities for teens is a group publishes a quarterly magazine which highlights poems, photographs, and art submitted by area teens.

I tutor small groups of students in math and reading in an afterschool program. We often work on writing projects to both improve communication skills and give a reason to read each other’s work. A few months ago we worked on writing a poem about ourselves, including information about the lives of our parents.

author cherisseCherisse did an excellent job on this project. She wrote such a good poem, that we submitted it to the Magazine project mentioned above. Now she and I must wait for a few weeks to hear if her poem is chosen to be included in the next issue of BlendedZine.

Here is her poem:


I am from Chester & Doris, Tom & Dorothy, David & Esther.

I am from Tahachi and Pueblo Pintada, where the dirt road meets on with the highway. From a small town with schools and a little store.

I am from potatoes with hamburger meat  and feast eaters, dumpling stew, frybread, cake and spaghetti eaters.

I am from funny, crazy, anger, and a lovable family.

I am from “Hózhójí ba’ awéé,” “a beauty way of life.”

I am from the conflict between medicinemen and preachers, and from non-religious people doing nothing more than trying to be good.

I am from sheepherders and jewelry-makers, teachers and railroad workers, and even a Navajo-nation president.

I am from toy horses, 2007 Expedition, and The Lord of the Rings.

I am from dogs, horses and cats; from playing basketball and singing.

I am from J. Rowling, Stephen Myers and Andy Sixx.

My own loud concert with an audience of women in blue jeans and men in regular clothes.

(In the style of a poem by Mary Pipher in Writing to Change the World)

What do YOU think? Should this poem be chosen for publication? I wish I could ask all of you to vote on it… I guess we just have to wait!

Mail in the “Middle of Nowhere”

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When people ask for our address, they are often surprised at how long it is. There is a 5 digit number which tells where we live along US Hwy 550. The second line has a Box Number, plus a cryptic HCR number. Folks who know the area are confused when they see our Cuba zipcode. We regularly have to explain that we don’t live in that town but live 45 miles further along the highway into the middle of nowhere.

tiny post offices

A few people pay to pick up their mail at a PO Box in a tiny area post office.

For our friends who live back on the dirt roads, there is no direct mail delivery. They either rent a PO Box at one of the tiny area post offices or they have mail delivered to them care of the local “mercantile.”

We are one of the privileged ones. We have an actual mailbox at the end of our driveway. Since we live so far away from any post office that delivers mail, our mail is delivered by a “Hired Carrier.”  (We are Hired Carrier Route 17—which implies the USPS has done this for a number of remote areas in this huge state…)

Having an HCR number means that the USPS has hired a private company to haul the bags of mail on a semi truck from an Albuquerque sorting location up to the post office in Farmington. Along the way, the semi driver drops off bags of mail to the tiny area post offices. And for a select handful of us who live right on the highway, that semi driver stops at the end of each driveway, climbs out of his giant cab, and puts our little handful of letters and bills into our mailbox. He then climbs back up into his semi and drives down the highway toward town.

semi delivery

Our mail travels by SEMI and is hand-delivered by the driver!

I never imagined my mail would be delivered by SEMI TRUCK!! Isn’t that fun?!

I guess this is just one more evidence that we really do live in the middle of nowhere. (At least our mail is not delivered by bush plane or by dog sled…)

Playing Mrs. Claus

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Last week I had the opportunity to play Mrs. Claus at the local school. The staff was overwhelmed with sorting and wrapping donated gifts. They asked if I could come in on Wednesday and help finish the task.

donated toys

...piles of donated toys take over the nurses' office...

I took over the school nurse’s office with boxes and stacks of toys piled on every available surface. I was given a list of every student sorted by grade—100+ students in grades pre-school through 8th grade. My job was to pick out an appropriate toy for each child to be wrapped by Santa’s elves in the 7th and 8th grade class.

Sounds easy, right?

It took hours to balance out the toys for each class: finding age appropriate toys of approximately the same value for both girls and boys. Taking the numbers for each toy and figuring out which class had the closest number of recipients. Then re-juggling everything when I couldn’t get things to balance for a later class. Sigh…

mrs claus at lybrook

Playing Mrs. Claus at Lybrook School

Finally, everything was sorted, labeled for the specific child to receive each toy, piled precariously into big boxes, and ready to be hauled down the hall to be wrapped. The principal helped me wrap the gifts for the 7th and 8th graders. And the job was finished.

Parties were held on Wednesday afternoon, gifts were distributed, snacks and sweets were eaten, and children were excited by the spirit of Christmas filling the school. Meanwhile, the principal, the turn-around-leader and I sat around a conference table in the office with aching backs, shoes kicked off, and a paper-cut or two from cartons and wrapping paper, talking about Christmas plans and enjoying a short rest. Christmas had come to the students at Lybrook School…

I’m the Policeman…

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I had a delightful time as substitute teacher for the 1st grade class at Lybrook School this past Thursday. I had the privilege of being read to by 5 of the students during silent reading time. We colored and cut out and glued together scarecrows to decorate the hall. (I’ve got more stories about that to tell you next time…). We did some math, and did an awesome art project in the style of Henri Matisse (another story for another day).

Children Playing Sign

Slow: Children at PLAY!

When some of the children finished their scarecrow projects before the rest of the class, they started pushing each other in a big circle around the desks, pretending their chairs were cars and they were driving to town.

I got a little silly with them. At one point I stood in the way and said, “STOP! I’m the policeman and you can’t drive here!” They giggled, stopped, said “pretty please,” and continued their driving.

A few minutes later I stopped two little girls, “Stop! You were speeding. I need to see your license.” The “driver” giggled and made it clear that she didn’t have a license, and neither did her “passenger.” The others chimed in to let me know that NONE of them had licenses so I had to let them drive some more. I laughed with them, and let them continue, even while wondering if this was something they had heard their parents say in real life.

The next time around the circle, one of the little boys giggled and yelled to me, “Don’t worry! I’m only a little drunk! I didn’t really drink anything…” and on he went, passing me while pushing his passenger in the chair further around the “road.”

I was so shocked by his comment (and his giggles) that I laughed as well, and moved out of his way. I thought about discussing his comment. I considered having a little talk with the entire class. And I decided not to ruin a fun time of imagination play. Maybe next time…

Meanwhile, the children drove on, laughing and talking about their long trip to town…and about the “policeman” that was playing with them!

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