COVID Shut-downs Spur Creativity and Optimism for Future Elementary Programming

This week, I caught up with our Elementary Program Director Marvanna Cash to discuss the important role Sunshine has filled for families during the past 5 months of quarantine.  Marvanna joined our staff in September of 2019 and what a year it has been!  Join us as we reflect on the past few months!


Holly: Thanks so much for taking time to visit with me!


Marvanna: No problem! I was just finishing up ordering meals for some of our families as our summer program draws to a close.

Marvanna Cash is our Elementary Program Director. She poses in the Fall of 2019 with one of our students.


Holly:  I’ve been so impressed with the creative curriculum you have used this summer! I wish my kids could have participated in it! So many cool projects!


Marvanna:  Yes, thank you, it’s been really fun to implement more science, art, engineering and technology curriculum with our elementary kids. There’s a key to making learning fun, and giving the students valuable tools they can use in their everyday lives even more. It’s a curriculum that we have not done before and gives me a lot of ideas for our programming in the future!


Holly:  Yes, there’s been a lot of new ways you’ve had to innovate this year. Let’s go back to March when everything was shut-down for the first time. Do you remember what your immediate thoughts were?


Marvanna: Well, I think my immediate concern was that some students would fall through the cracks. There are students who maybe didn’t have the support system in place to keep them engaged in school and at Sunshine. Many students during the pandemic didn’t have support in place to engage in any online connections. Within the first few weeks we were able to survey parents and see where some of the gaps were.


Holly:  Yes, I know the surveys provided crucial information early on to us on how Sunshine could step in and fill the gaps. The Development team was able to quickly raise and deploy funds to help support families with food insecurity, care packages, Chromebooks, bill pay assistance, and school supplies.


Marvanna: I realized that some of our families would not be able to engage with us online and that’s okay because we were able to support them in other ways. I started focusing on the kids that were able to stay engaged through our Zoom calls and develop quality curriculum and support for them. There are kids that come to after school programs such as ours for different reasons. I’ve had to switch my mindset to quality over quantity. Having a solid foundation and number of students that would commit to participating in an array of hands on activities that fosters play, critical thinking, logic, creativity, and problem solving is a great start to an enormous future of success. Starting at an early age, at an elementary level, exposing students to these skills is so vital. Being able to provide access in Woodlawn to quality enrichment is very important to me. Our students will gain an advantage in subjects and experiences that may not be available in their classroom or other extracurriculars so easily.

"I’ve had to switch my mindset to quality over quantity."

Holly: Throughout the years, we’ve seen how a focus on quality relationships with the elementary kids transfers to our Middle School and then High School programs. I’m sure you’re pouring into future leaders! Tell me about some of the kids that are in the BRING program that you’re connecting with.

Marvanna: Some of the connections with students over the summer have been transformative. Students have shown dedication, have challenged themselves to try, have been open to building together, and learning without having a clear idea of what the finished project would look like. Some of the students’ parents have worked alongside us during our Zoom sessions, helping their child build more challenging assignments such as a pair of headphones, a hydraulic claw, and helping our team understand pottery. Students have expressed to me that they had never learned so much over one summer. They feel they have challenged themselves, through learning more about how electricity works inside of a flashlight for example. Over the course of this summer I have seen students work better individually/independently, focus their attention on one thing at a time, display a greater ability to stay encouraged, and overall consistency. 

Holly: I know you’ve had a really creative online curriculum this summer.  Tell me more about the summer program you implemented this year.

 Student Michael Hillard builds a pottery wheel as part of the SummerBlast virtual summer program.

Marvanna:  Our summer curriculum consisted of activity packets that parents would pick up at the beginning of the week which included all the materials for the virtual lessons. We incorporated STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) lessons. We also included Bible lessons, physical fitness, and life skills lessons. At the beginning of Summer Blast some of the STEAM projects took longer than an hour which was perfectly fine. For example, I remember when we built an arcade catapult we started at 2pm and finished at 330. The projects are designed to last at least 90 minutes with varying levels of difficulty and skill level. There was a balance between creativity (Art/Science) and technology (Math and Engineering), which was great. Some projects even overlapped with the content and the students were able to draw the connections between, as well as read excellent supplemental material.

We also spent 2 hours each week studying the Bible. We have a reinforcement of elementary aged work that would help students understand more of the Bible. We encouraged students to participate and ask questions when they were in doubt. We provided the students their own prayer journals to have a space to reflect and write ideas and questions down. The journals were also a craft assignment as they were able to customize them as they wanted. 

We incorporated physical fitness activities as well. We taught them yoga, which was very helpful since our students do not always have access to a regular practice and understanding of how yoga is beneficial. They are at ages where being mindful, and having more balance and control over their feelings and bodies will be a huge help as they grow. Yoga was included in fitness activities twice a week. 

On Fridays we focused on a life skill and different virtual tours. They learned different cooking and baking techniques, and took virtual field trips to museums around the world! We also used positive cartoons that taught them about their culture, making healthy decisions, and being a model student.

Holly: What were some of your favorite lessons to teach?

Marvanna:  I enjoyed teaching the students about masks and the history of masks. I created a mini presentation about masks following a lesson where we created our own shields with collages on them. I gave the students an insight to how masks have been used in our world for cultural, social, and fashionable reasons. I was able to connect it to how masks are being used now. I also enjoyed making our flashlight. In this lesson, we learned inside and out how the light works, how to connect the circuits, and ways to troubleshoot electricity issues. I also really enjoyed the curriculum we used as it was very user-friendly with detailed instructions.  

Holly: So looking ahead to the coming school year, what are the plans?

Marvanna: Well, since all Chicago Public School kids are doing online learning for this first semester, we’ll be providing online support, tutoring, and a homework helpline that allows volunteers to assist kids with academics. I’d also love to offer classes once a week that feature a speaker teaching about leadership training skills. I have some leadership and mentoring programs in place for a small group of boys and girls that will give them even stronger reasons to come to our program, be better people, and make connections to their lives outside of Sunshine. I want our students to receive credit for service learning hours if needed and more accreditation for participating in our programs. I remember when I was a part of programs like Sunshine in grade school that gave me a lot of meaningful experiences, and that many of those experiences were based on how the programs were designed.

 The Wade-Henry family sent Sunshine a thank-you note for the great summer program.

Holly: I know you’ve had to adapt a lot of expectations during this time and be flexible. What positives have you seen come out of this time?

Marvanna: Definitely building more quality relationships with some of the kids and parents! I think I’ve also seen some of the parents engaging and interacting more with their child’s learning and that’s a positive thing. It’s been a time of reflection for families and has allowed them to prioritize how to support one another. It feels good to not feel overwhelmed or overloaded with chaos and allowing the kids to just be kids! I love students. Even more, I love it when we are collectively building, making connections, creating, and establishing positive relationships, and getting great results. 

"I love it when we are collectively building, making connections, creating, and establishing positive relationships, and getting great results."

Holly: I’m excited to see how this time will inform the program and curriculum 

when you’re able to be back in person!

Marvanna: I’m excited too! It gives me a lot of ideas around how to incorporate more science and technology projects into our regular after school program. I’d also love to see the kids involved in more service projects around the community. I foresee students in the near future building a portfolio of several things we work on in our Elementary program. I want them to achieve higher, and bring things from Sunshine that can help them more in school and as future scholars of tomorrow.

Holly: Thank you so much for all the effort you put into connecting with the kids and their families! We are fortunate to have you as part of our Sunshine team.

If you would like to volunteer with our Elementary Program, please contact Marvanna Cash at