Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico


I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.


Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.


Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

And so, in New Zealand, to be around people who understand their legacy, and who use their heritage to create amazing community made me feel more connected to this earth and to humanity than I had ever experienced before.  The hospitality and the overwhelming “arms around” approach to love and caring was refreshing for a young bi-racial woman that is used to a capitalistic, individualistic society found in most pockets of the U.S.

And so now, I’m hungry for ways I can bring that type of humanity into my classroom.  One way I’ve found so far is to facilitate an exchange between my high school and the Māori school next year (more on this later!).  Another way is to focus on philosophies and pedagogies that get back to our roots as humans, like the restorative justice movement with its practice of peace circles–a practice that is inspired by indigenous American cultures.

And the last way is through this NEH summer seminar for teachers called, “Mesoamerican Cultures and their Histories: Spotlight on Oaxaca!”  I was first drawn the program’s description that stated, “This is a great fellowship opportunity for teachers across the U.S. who wish to increase Mesoamerican content in their courses, delve into indigenous cultures and their histories from readings, lectures, and experiential learning through excursions in southern Mexico.”  I was SOLD.

While in Mexico, I’ll study a different topic each week:

Week One


Week Two


Week Three

Community Arts

Week Four


And, like the Fulbright grant, I will be creating curriculum inspired by what I learned that I will use in my classes next fall.  This is learning that will directly impact my classroom, and I feel so over the moon that I’m still flying and waving at little Pluto on my way out into the galaxy.

Being 30 has definitely been a wild year for me, making it one of the best years of my life. It’s had many extreme highs and some uncomfortable lows.  But, to start dusting off the seven years of Spanish language I put on the shelf sophomore year of college:  Me siento muy bendecido.

I feel very blessed that I will be able to bring even more rich curriculum to my students.  I feel very blessed that I will collaborate with other passionate teachers from across the U.S. in a brand new cultural context.  I feel blessed that I get to build community with the citizens of Mexico.  And lastly, I feel blessed that I can continue my spiritual journey of getting back to my roots and to the basic humanity of my people.  I want very much that when someone looks at a photograph of me 150 years into the future, that they know that my legacy is drawn from an intricate ancestry of persevering through obstacles, feeling cup-runneth-over with gratitude, and loving people and not things.

I want that when people see my picture, that I have stood for something that makes people remember my name.  

Picture of Jess and bear

Feeling the Universe’s hug.

So here’s to the upcoming tales from a travelling teacher and  the next stop on my journey:  Oaxaca, Mexico.  Cheers!

Hugs and kisses,
Ms. Stovall 313. 

3 thoughts on “Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

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