Riley teacher brings the 1800s to life for 10-year-old



Pioneer Web

Kellee Clevenger uses 21st-century technology to bring 19th-century lessons from a young patient’s classroom to her hospital room.

Brooklyn Smith had been looking forward to Pioneer Day at her school for weeks. She had her 1800s-style costume and her curtsy ready. Then came a trip to the hospital.

Brooklyn, a fourth-grader at Mount Comfort Elementary in Hancock County, found out a week ago she was going to be admitted to Riley Hospital for Children. The first thing she thought of was that she would miss Pioneer Day and a related field trip to Conner Prairie.

That’s when the tears started to fall. Brooklyn is an enthusiastic student, the kind of student that Riley educational liaison Kellee Clevenger loves to see. When Clevenger met Brooklyn on Thursday, the 10-year-old told her about missing the field trip that day and Pioneer Day in school the next day. That’s when Clevenger jumped into action.

She contacted Brooklyn’s teacher, Lauren Mills, found out more about the activities they planned, and arranged for Brooklyn to FaceTime with her class on Pioneer Day last Friday.

“I know that Ms. Mills put so much time and effort into planning this event, and being able to bring that to Brooklyn and her not missing out was just a neat experience,” Clevenger said.

When she found out Brooklyn had a black pioneer dress and white bonnet at home that she planned to wear for the day, Clevenger asked the girl’s mom, Riley hematology-oncology clinic nurse Melissa Smith, to bring the dress to the hospital the next day. Clevenger borrowed a similar-style dress from a friend, and together, the Riley teacher and student dressed in their 1800s-style garb the next morning, ready for school.

With 21st-century technology, they were able to FaceTime the class to participate in 19th-century lessons.

“Her teacher was awesome,” Clevenger said. “She put Brooklyn up on the big screen so all her classmates could see her. Brooklyn just participated like she was there.”

Mills was thrilled that Clevenger took the time to make sure Brooklyn was included in the day’s activities.

“Our class has been working on our pioneer unit for a few weeks,” she said in an email. “The culminating activity is Pioneer School. Students spend the day in a one-room school house set in 1836. The schoolmarm leads scholars in activities in a very strict environment. We worked on geography, our cursive penmanship, arithmetic, and took a spelling test.”

They also made butter – pouring whipping cream into a mason jar and shaking it for several minutes. Clevenger was ready for this – bringing the supplies to Brooklyn’s room and watching as the girl shook and sang “churn butter churn” along with her classmates.

“It was legit,” Clevenger said. “It looked like a ball of butter.”

The one thing Brooklyn didn’t have that her classmates did was a slate board and chalk for writing, so they went modern with paper and markers. When the class got up to use the “outhouse,” Brooklyn and Clevenger walked the halls of 7 West, politely greeting and curtseying to those they encountered along the way.

“She had a huge smile on her face the entire time,” Clevenger said.

Melissa Smith, Brooklyn’s mom, was touched that the school and Riley teachers worked so hard to bring the lessons alive for her daughter, who has been struggling with chronic abdominal pain and weight loss for nearly two years. She was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency over the weekend.

“It’s been a rough road for her,” Smith said. “When you have someone that’s out of school for a long period of time off and on, the social isolation starts in.”

Anything that adds a sense of normalcy to a patient’s life is important to their well-being, she said. As a Riley nurse, she knows about the important work the teachers do with patients, but this was above and beyond.

“It’s nice to see it from the family perspective, from a mom perspective,” she said. “It just meant the world.”

Clevenger said she only did what any of the teachers in the Riley school program would have done.

“It’s hard to see a patient, especially an enthusiastic fourth-grader, miss out on school activities. The main focus for us is to make sure they don’t fall behind in school, but when you can bring in a part of a normal classroom activity, and they feel that they haven’t missed out because they’re sick in the hospital, that is a huge win.”

Brooklyn’s teacher at Mount Comfort said she could tell that her other students were grateful that Brooklyn was able to participate in the day’s activities.

“As our day ended, we gathered around the phone as a class and waved goodbye,” Mills said. “There were cheers of ‘We miss you,’ ‘Come back soon’ and ‘I love you!’ I hope being able to connect with her while she was in the hospital made her feel that she's still a member of our family.”

– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist