July 7, 2018 — It’s all about the slime.
“One of the things we’re doing with teens is learning about molecular structure by making slime,” Boys and Girls Club of Western Lane County (BGC) Executive Director Chuck Trent said. “By adding various different components to the slime, it affects the viscosity.”
Generally speaking, when introducing these concepts to teenagers, “they run out the door,” Trent said. “But when you change that, and you use these kinds of things that are hands-on and you make slime by adding different components, affecting viscosity is fun.”
At first, it is just a stringy slime. Add different components, and the product gets firmer.
“You keep adding until you can actually bounce it like ‘flubber,’” he said.
Trent, along with Elementary Program Director Samantha Gauderman and other BGC staff, use slime, along with Tootsie Rolls and superhero powers, to help children learn scholastics through a new program called Summer Brain Gain.
“This is an eight-week program that is very specific to math, science and English, but it’s all done with a lot of activities that are real fun,” Trent said.
Summer Brain Gain, a national program produced by the national BGC program, is eight weeks of theme-based activities designed to mitigate summer learning loss.
Each Common Core-aligned learning module provides project-based activities, emphasizing subjects that many students lose over the summer months.
“I’ve been so impressed with this program and the results it has had with other clubs,” Trent said. “It’s all learning — but like much of what we do, we’re trying to make sure that our kids all have what they need to be successful. The key to success is for kids to be able to learn and grow, but it’s disguised as fun. They don’t know they’re learning. It’s amazing to see, using something as simple as slime, that when you get to talk about viscosity, and you get to learn about elements as well. That’s why I’ve been so impressed.”
The program, which was implemented this summer for youth grades kindergarten through ninth, also helps children learn social coping mechanisms.
“We worked on standing up to bullies and talking about what standing up means to them,” Gauderman said. “One of their favorite activities was making superhero capes. It was their kindness capes. They were kindness superheroes, and they got to pick their superhero power of kindness.”
“That’s why we wanted to do this program,” Trent added. “Part of it is about coping skills, and teaching the kids at a young age how to handle the problems that come up with bullying and on and on.”
BGC staff believes the program is important because of the hard economic realities facing some of the Siuslaw region’s families.
“In the summer, lower income kids tend to lose two-to-three months of learning, so the minute they start school in the fall, they’re already behind,” Trent said. “That obviously creates problems for the teachers. Not only does it create stress for the kids and families, it creates stress for the teachers as well because they have to make up for this time.”
According to a June 2016 article by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the reason some children lose learning lies in the affordability of enriching activities that higher-income peers can more likely receive. Vacations, museums and library trips can be limited when a single parent is struggling to get by.
“Because of the family work and financial situation, our kids are at a significantly higher risk for childhood hunger, child abuse and school dropout,” Trent said. “We have 23 kids in 17 families that are on Summer Program Scholarships. The average wage for these families is $1,364 a month. The average monthly expenses are $1,348, with families having salaries in the $10 to $12 an hour range with no benefits.”
A random sampling of incomes of BGC students showed more dire circumstances. In one instance, $733 came from foster care payments and $250 from SNAP Food benefits. In another example, one single parent’s only income was $273 from child support and $504 from SNAP.
“With the cost of housing and childcare today, it’s really tough on families,” Trent said. “Most of these kids are one bill away from homelessness. One major bill or a landlord decides they’re going to sell the place they’re staying in right now, where do they go?
“I don’t think the vast majority of people in this community have any idea. They see homelessness on the street, and they understand that because they see it. What they don’t see is this. I call them the forgotten few, though it’s not just a few anymore. It’s a lot more than a few.”
As the Harvard report pointed out, these circumstances can lead to a summer learning loss. On average, students lose approximately 2.6 months of learning in math over the summer months, and teachers have to give up weeks of class time to make up for that loss by reteaching subjects, the report said.
And these losses lead to an overall decline in student performance.
“When we look at our English and math scores across the state, they’re dismal,” Trent said.
A 2016-17 assessment of student knowledge showed that only 41 percent of students met national standards in mathematics, down one percentage point from the previous year, according to the Oregon School Board Association.
English Language arts was at 54 percent, and science was 61 percent, down two points from the previous year.
Oregon’s graduation has been steadily increasing over the years. In 2014, the rate was 72 percent, while in 2017, the rate was 77 percent, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
However, these numbers are still well below the national graduation rate of 84.1 percent.
“When I started looking at the numbers, I thought, ‘That’s not okay. We have to do something about this,’” Trent recalled.
He believes that Summer Brain Gain can be an answer.
“Overall, we’re going to see our dropout rates get better,” Trent said. “We’re going to see our math and literacy scores get better. It’s because the kids have help.”
For example, Gauderman brought up a responsible money management program that teaches both math and financial skills.
“This week we’re learning about money, and what the benefits are in saving your money, and spending your money,” she said. “What’s the difference between needing something and wanting something.”
Gauderman does this by teaching the concept of interest.
“I give them three ‘dollars’ for working today,” she said.
Working comes from responsibility training, where kids pick up five responsibilities that they are in charge of — picking up toys, cleaning up after lunch or taking care of their pets at home.
“If they save their money, they’ll get interest so tomorrow they will get another dollar because of interest,” Gauderman explained. “If you save your money, you can buy a bigger prize. The first prizes were Tootsie Rolls. Some kids wanted that Tootsie Roll the first day, so they bought three Tootsie Rolls instead of waiting for the next day, where they were offered a huge piece of candy instead. So, the next day, they got the big Tootsie Roll, but they had the chance to save again for another day for something bigger. That was our prize box.”
Gauderman is also teaching children how to use a check account, even designing their own debit cards.
Trent sees two concepts at play with the money program.
“Money management and what things cost, and the tradeoffs you make,” he said. “And math, obviously, because they’re trying to figure out what things cost.”
Trent hopes that these concepts can carry over to the home, which is particularly vital in situations where money is tight.
“We want them to go home and have these conversations with their parents,” he said. “‘Here’s what I learned today,’ and then ask questions to the parents.”
If kids stick with BGC into their adolescence, these skills can grow, the club hopes.
“When they come to the Teen Center and talk about every kid having a job, they start looking at how much a car costs,” Trent said. “Or renting a house, which also includes utilities and on and on. All of these things we’re starting at the elementary program are building blocks.”
Knowing how to manage money will lead to questions about how they earn it. Would one job create a greater income than another? What type of lifestyle do kids want for themselves once they get on their own?
“If you want to flip burgers, that’s great, if that’s what your goal is,” Trent said. “But have you thought about being an airline mechanic or an accountant or a teacher? We want to make sure kids aren’t locked into generational poverty because they feel they’re locked into something because they don’t know anything else.”
Gauderman added, “We’re not raising kids here. We’re raising young adults. That’s what we’re doing. These are all little young adults. We want to teach them life skills and learn about the world. We want to mentor them in the right direction, but they are each their own person. You’re not going to change who they are. They have their own opinions and personalities.”
The established curriculum of Brain Gain also helps instructors like Gauderman, who had to create her own educational programs before.
“At first I was upset,” Gauderman recalled about first learning about the program. “I’ll be honest, I went home and cried when Chuck threw this at me. I thought it didn’t look fun. Even some of our staff were intimidated. ‘I don’t do so good in math. I understand the concepts, but I’m no good at taking tests.’ But when you have a structured program where you’re not doing all of this curriculum on your own, that has been well thought out and well proven, it allows us to have fun. If our staff isn’t learning anything at the same time as our kids, then this is worthless.”
“That’s the secret sauce,” Trent said. “The engagement between the kids and the staff. In a fun way, you create this curiosity. It’s not tedious. When you create that curiosity and you challenge the staff as well, that’s the best of both worlds.”
That shared curiosity has created a stronger bond with the children.
“You’re not talking to them, you’re talking with them,” Trent said.
And by talking with them, Trent hopes that the future of BGC’s children will be nothing but gain.
For more information about the Boys and Girls Club of Western Lane County, visit bgcwlc.org.