Children blowing bubblesIt is well known that some form of learning loss takes place in the warm-weather vacation days of summer. This “summer learning loss” phenomenon is particularly true for lower income students in rural areas. Research shows that summer programming in poor rural communities requires the development of community resources, human capital, and program accessibility.

With this in mind, students and faculty from the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching (C&T) – particularly Early Childhood, Reading, and ESOL – provided “Pop Up and Play” opportunities for two neighborhoods in Loachapoka. The students were led by professors Mary Jane McIlwain, Kathleen Sacco, and Jamie Harrison.

Two young girls reading a book outdoors with bubbles“The idea was introduced by the Loachapoka school administration at an April meeting focused on how C&T could complement and extend plans for summer school in June,” McIlwain said. “The July tent structure was purely organic. We knew we wanted to give local children opportunities like sports, building, games, reading, art, and music because it all ties into language, literacy, and mathematical learning. But that can feel a little loose to some. Loachapoka High School principal Albert Weeden and LES principal Natasha Foster, sought local families to host the daily, two-week events. Trudy Mae Matthews, a loyal and much-loved mother in the local community who recently retired from the school, volunteered to let her home and yard be one of the locations. She said ‘Let all the babies come here and play!’ The other location, in a primarily Hispanic neighborhood, was hosted by Perla Hernandez and Yuri Morales-Martinez. Like Trudy, these women added so much to our experience through their dedication to their families and friends. Robert Nettles and his crew at Momma Goldberg’s on Thach showed their ‘love’ and provided the lunches every day, and we hosted a picnic at both locations on July 18, our last day. I would say overall the program was a real success.”

The gatherings started out small, but as word got around, more and more kids began coming. By the last day, approximately three dozen local youngsters were in on the fun. The structure grew out of work the C&T students and professors have been doing in the Loachapoka area. The department is building a strong professional development school partnership with both the elementary and high schools there.

Three adult participants helping to run the program

In addition to McIlwain, Sacco, and Harrison, professors Mike Cook and Jane Kuehne have been working there throughout the year, integrating and embedding methods courses and outreach in reading, ESOL, secondary English, and music education. With support from the Office of University Outreach, music education and English education students joined early childhood and elementary education students, as well as Lee County teachers, to work with pre-K through eighth grade students. This group added music and reading to Lee County’s Project Lead the Way program. As June ended, it became apparent that everyone wanted more time to be with the local students. In collaboration with the school’s administration, the Pop Up and Play idea began to truly take shape.

Little girl playing with frog puppet“By the end of June, our mantra came about with the help of the 7th and 8th grade students—‘building relationships, empathy, and perspective,’” McIlwain said. “Mr. Weeden and Ms. Foster have such great vision for their school community. They dedicate themselves with limited resources but there is only so much a school can do during the summer. They and Robbie Thomas, a Loachapoka teacher working with me and Jamie during the year, visited the tents and played with the students regularly over the two weeks. On our end, Auburn students fully embraced the experience to work in a rural area with the families that live there, and observed faculty and graduate students doing the same. Our collaboration is providing many, varied opportunities for everyone involved.”

Sacco said she and the students watched the youngsters in what began as lightly structured play, and from that they began to tailor the play to the interests of the kids. C&T department head David Virtue noted that one outstanding aspect of the program was the way it embedded play-based learning in a local, rural community and honored the cultural and community resources that were already there.

“We saw the kids gain interest in several activities over the two-week period,” Sacco said. “It seemed like everyone loved basketball, but some liked to make models with Play Doh, some liked making giant bubbles and getting their faces painted, some enjoyed the gymnastics mat, and they all loved music. One of our students brought her guitar one day and it turned into a giant line dance. It was a beautiful thing to see.”

The temperatures were high during the two weeks of the neighborhood events, but there was always plenty of water on hand. The Momma G’s food was enjoyed by all, and on the last day there were picnics at both locations. Ms. Matthews grilled hot dogs and hamburgers with beans, slaw, and juice in her front yard, while Mrs. Morales-Martinez and her tenth grade son, Eugenio, provided a more Hispanic menu, including tamales, homemade hot salsa, and a large thermos cooler of horchata—a Mexican and Central American drink that counters the heat of summers. Horchata is made of rice, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. It was a huge hit in the 90+ degree weather.

Young boy with face paint

An advocacy team had met Mrs. Morales-Martinez two weeks earlier as they went door-to-door to meet the members of the neighborhood. She brought more and more children with her to play each day. The children showed sustained interest in building and art, as well as soccer, hula hoops, and jumping rope. The C&T students helped children as young as 4 and as old as 8 build and test different marble runs. Eugenio and his siblings and friends spent hours experimenting with different painting techniques and materials. Bilingual books were also enjoyed as a student read in both English and Spanish.

“The advocacy team (CTSE 7970 Advocacy for ELLs) provided professional development for the teachers, developed a parent survey to determine needs and interests, canvassed the neighborhoods to invite families, and participated in the events,” said Harrison, the professor of CTSE 7970. “Isabel Clark, a member of a local immigrant advocacy organization, Alabama del Este Presente, also contributed to the event by providing bilingual translations of newsletters that were created by the early childhood students, interacting with local parents and children, and bringing snacks.”

Little boy smiling

Overall, McIlwain said the Pop Up and Play idea was good for all involved.

“Thank you to everyone who was part of the project’s success,” she said. “We are building on an innovative PDS year-round model that will lead to a systemic learning community. Situating the July tents in the neighborhoods and structuring them around play and self expression positioned children, parents, college students, and faculty to learn from one another as we continue to build relationships, empathy, and perspective. I don’t think it would have been the same if we stayed within the school walls. We learned a lot about the power of community. ”