Loving, Kind, Considerate
By Suzanne Wilson
In Ardmore, Okla., parents, teachers, and community supporters believe the character traits students develop in the BSA's Learning for Life program can be as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Hi, everybody!" Stephanie Andrews breezes into a fourth-grade classroom at Jefferson Elementary School with a smile that reaches every boy and girl. Their weekly Learning for Life session is about to begin.
Andrews asks these Ardmore, Okla., kids to talk about activities they've tried that are easy for them, and the answers come. "Baseball." "Gymnastics." "Multiplication." What about difficult things? "Computer games." "Math." "Go-cart driving."
What's easy for some can be a challenge for others, Andrews explains, and when you're good at something, you can help others learn.
Soon everyone is decoding messages made of words with the letters scrambled. The kids use scissors to snip the letters apart, then rearrange them. "Does anyone know the first message?" Andrews asks.
"Never give up!" several answer. Other messages are encouraging, too: "Keep on trying." "Practice even harder." "Ask for help."
"If you get discouraged," Andrews says, "look at your message chart and remember, try again and ask for help. O.K.?"
"Yes, ma'am," a boy says.
Unscrambling messages is a game, but at the same time it's spelling, it's perception, it's character education_it's Learning for Life. This BSA program for schools has a way of teaching a lot of lessons at once.
Bringing a community together
It also has the knack of bringing a community together to help kids. It brought Andrews, a Learning for Life mentor and human resources manager for Dollar General Corporation, into teacher Mahota Martin's classroom. This is just one example of the escalation of Learning for Life activity in the Arbuckle Area Council.
When Scout Executive Clifford Takawana arrived in 1993, Learning for Life was used only in special-needs classes. He wanted it to reach mainstream classes, especially kids at risk, minorities, and those not being served by traditional Scouting units. It also could provide mentors who would be role models for black, Native American, and Hispanic students.
Takawana credits Chickasaw District Executive Dennis Luellen with much of the program's subsequent growth. In 1996, Luellen forged a partnership between Learning for Life and Communities in Schools (CIS), a nonprofit national organization with a program in Ardmore. CIS already had an adopt-a-school program for businesses.
"I knew Learning for Life was perfect for an adopt-a-school program," Luellen says.
At the time, Learning for Life was used in a few classes in most Ardmore schools, in special-needs or mainstream classes, or both. In this nine-county council, with its southernmost edge along the Red River and the Oklahoma-Texas border, the program was also in several other towns.
'We had to do more'
"The need and the success said we had to do more," says Takawana.
Bringing in a Learning for Life executive was the right move for the council just as demand for the program was soaring.
Brian C. Brown became the council's Learning for Life executive in August 1997. The position was funded by a grant from Southern Oklahoma Memorial Foundation, which was matched by the Charles B. Goddard Center.
Right away, Brown started programs in Ardmore's Take Two Academy, an alternative public school for grades seven through 12, which includes in-school suspension and a high school completion program for teen-age parents.
Meanwhile, 200 students at Ada (Okla.) Senior High School had begun Learning for Life's school-to-career (school-to-work) program_career seminars and workshops. And Jefferson Elementary in Ardmore went schoolwide with Learning for Life, with 226 students enjoying weekly classroom sessions.
CIS applied for a grant for another Ardmore elementary school to go schoolwide in 1998. "To make it successful, you have to get every class in the school," says Brown. Children who have the program year after year build life skills and value systems.
More possibilities opened up in late 1997 with new federal School-to-Work grants for senior high schools. With this funding available, "We could go to every high school in the council," says Brown. He and Luellen immediately signed up Ardmore High with 200 sophomores in the school-to-career program, then added Madill (Okla.) High with 170 students in school-to-career combined with three career awareness Explorer posts.
Then, Oklahoma School for the Deaf in Sulphur joined Learning for Life.
A hands-on experience
The council formed a committee to oversee a council-wide Learning for Life service area with Chuck Watterson, director of special services for Ardmore City Schools, as volunteer chairman. He'd been introducing the program in special-needs classes around the council since 1991.
Watterson, who is also an assistant Scoutmaster, says Learning for Life "gives students hands-on experience in working on character development, values, goals, good citizenship, communication skills, self-help skills_those things that contribute to people being productive in society. Oftentimes we used to have parents or grandparents or some other member of the extended family helping with those skills." That family help is not readily available to many of today's youth.
Brown describes the way Learning for Life grows as "contagious." When one teacher in a school uses it or whenever the news media covers a Learning for Life event, principals and teachers ask, "How can we get that program?"
Teacher Patti Green brought Learning for Life with her when she was transferred to Jefferson to teach a transitional first grade (T-1) class. T-1 is for children who need additional development between kindergarten and first grade.
"The T-1 kids who have Learning for Life are more loving, kind, and considerate," Green says. "Those are lessons in Learning for Life."
Other Jefferson teachers wanted the program. Principal Mickey Sweat compared it with several character-building programs before going school-wide with Learning for Life. A five-dollar-per-student cost of materials was funded by CIS, the school board, Dollar General, and Jefferson Elementary.
Skills for latchkey kids
About 80 percent of Jefferson students are latchkey children. Learning for Life teaches skills needed by kids who spend time on their own.
The school's neighborhood has a rough reputation, but the school itself is known for its well-behaved students and encouraging atmosphere. Learning for Life complements Sweat's goals for the kids, he says. "It reinforces the whole climate of the school."
Dollar General adopted Jefferson Elementary through CIS, and 12 employees mentor classes.
Bobbie Laws, CIS volunteer coordinator, says, "We were glad to see Learning for Life come along." Previously, CIS mentors had been searching books for ideas. "Now we have Learning for Life lesson plans."
Jana Weibrocht, program director of the Ardmore YMCA, mentors a fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary School and likes Learning for Life's flexibility. "You can modify the lessons however you want," she says. In one project, she coached her students in a mock city commission meeting at city hall.
She'd done other types of mentoring before using Learning for Life. "This has been my favorite," she says, "because it's all for the betterment of our youth."
Mentors fill in
To quickly answer teachers' requests for the program, temporary mentors fill in. VISTA volunteers who work for CIS lead some sessions. Laws, Takawana, Luellen, and Brown also volunteer.
Laws mentors a second grade at Jefferson. "The kids look forward to this every week," says teacher Penny Tibbs. She doesn't mind giving up class time. "The things Bobbie teaches are every bit as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic."
New possibilities continuously develop, like the idea of asking small businesses who can't adopt an entire school to adopt one class and mentor with Learning for Life.
"I'd like to see Learning for Life in every school," Watterson says. Though he doesn't expect every class to use the program, "I'm saying, make the curriculum available to the students and the teachers."
Scouting magazine contributing editor Suzanne Wilson lives in Joplin, Mo.
Filling a Special Need
While Learning for Life is expanding in the Arbuckle Area Council, it also remains right where it had its start, with a teacher who was one of the first to use it: Donna Stanton, special-needs teacher at Ardmore Middle School, and her small class of students with mental retardation.
"I've integrated Learning for Life into my curriculum full force," Stanton says. "Everything in it is applicable for my students. It reinforces the basic needs that have to be taught."
Stanton and her aides present the lessons themselves. Stanton uses the program nearly every day, wherever it will support her own lesson plans.
"I often have an objective in mind but need an activity, and I find it in the Learning for Life curriculum," she says. In one recent day, she used Learning for Life's safety rules in the morning and, later, a table-setting activity for her home economics lesson.
In 1997, there were 260 special-needs students in Learning for Life in the council. They included students with speech impairments, multiple disabilities, mental retardation, or multiple handicaps.
These students have their own pinewood derby in March at Mountain View Mall. "They make the cars at school," Stanton says. "The sanding and painting helps motor skills."
In May, they enjoy a day camp at a lake, funded by a Learning for Life golf tournament. They ride paddle boats, learn archery, swim, do crafts, and more. The volunteer staff includes Eagle Scouts, Scouters, and school nurses.
About Learning for Life
Learning for Life enhances a school's curriculum through creative, enjoyable activities designed for each level, kindergarten through 12th grade, for both mainstream and special-needs classes. Boys and girls participate.
The program helps students improve self-esteem, cope with challenges in their lives, make responsible choices, respect differences in people, learn social skills, prepare for jobs, and become a part of a community_to mention just a few objectives.
Presenters may be classroom teachers or volunteer mentors from businesses and the community. Local BSA councils provide training and ongoing support for presenters.
At each elementary grade level, mentors choose from 57 lesson plans, often coordinating sessions with current classroom subjects. Students can learn practical skills like money management, wise shopping, and pet care. They have experience in goal-setting, helping others, and ethical decisions.
In middle school, the program begins to prepare students for the transition from school to career, and this continues through high school. Adults from the community offer practical advice on education and career choices. High school students take part in workshop sessions and career seminars.
The cost of materials may be funded by the school, the school district, and community sources.
Learning for Life is a wholly owned subsidiary of the BSA, with its own national director, staff, and program development process. It is an entirely different program from the BSA's traditional Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Venturing programs, though it promotes Scouting's values.
The National Outlook
Since its inception in 1991, Learning for Life has become the BSA's fastest-growing component. A program for education in more than 7,000 schools, it amounted to 20 percent of BSA youth participation, or 949,583 students, at the end of 1997.
Teams of teaching professionals periodically evaluate all lesson plans and update them as needed.
In the past year the high school program has added two major areas:
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