PORTLAND — When this newspaper printed my students’ letters on a proposed wind farm at Highland Plantation, I had no idea that we would find ourselves at the center of such an emotionally charged issue.

My students’ letters received the most online comments that day, many of which were angry and attacked the students directly. The following Sunday, in response to these comments, an article was published about the assignment. Last week, more letters about the students and the assignment were published and the vitriolic comments continued.

Interestingly, the assignment had started not as a lesson on wind energy, but instead as a opportunity to practice youth advocacy – the purpose of the assignment was for students to write letters sharing their own opinions on a recent Press Herald article. Because readers responded, the assignment became an opportunity for students to observe and participate in public discourse.

We reviewed the online comments in class. To their credit, the students chose to pause in our planned curriculum to learn more about wind energy and the assumptions held about this emerging alternative energy source; this became a real life teachable moment.

Since then, they’ve done significant amounts of additional research on wind power. Several individuals, representing a variety of viewpoints and objectives related to the issue, have visited the class. Last week, as a summary assignment, the kids revised and reflected on their original letters and, in some cases, changed their initial opinions.

For these high school students, being in the middle of such a heated issue has been an exciting educational experience.

For me, the real lesson in all this has been that the barrier between the outside world and the classroom that I try so hard to break down in my teaching is actually a more formidable obstacle than I previously imagined.

In class I emphasize collaborative problem solving as the preferred approach to creating sustainable solutions. I stress how important it is for everyone involved in an issue to see the interests and biases of every stakeholder group.

I attempt to show through example how the best solutions to real world problems arise when people holding opposing viewpoints engage in active listening and talk with – and not at – each other. In this process, the first step is identifying interests, opinions, and biases.

I teach collaborative problem solving because I believe this approach is the best way to address the underlying causes of an issue. Also, in my experience of serving on several organizational boards and government commissions, I’ve seen extraordinary results when discussions happen this way.

In the last few weeks I have not seen much in the way of collaborative problem solving in regard to the future of wind energy in Maine. Aside from the individuals who came into my classroom and engaged my students in honest dialogue about the pros and cons of wind energy, most of the discussion I have witnessed seems to suggest that opponents and proponents are talking at – and not with – each other.

Articles about stakeholder meetings, the legislative process and the myriad letters published on the topic do not seem to exhibit the signs of this collaborative approach.

If I am wrong, please make the evidence more clear. If I am right, let’s use this moment to change the tone and course of conversation.

Personal opinions and political decisions are being decided. The future of wind energy in Maine is happening now.

As I see this assignment coming to its conclusion in my class, I feel grateful for the opportunity to work in a school that supports critical independent teaching and learning, to know young people who are genuinely curious about the world, to live in a state whose citizens care so passionately about community issues and the environment, and to have had this experience of participating in a public dialogue about an environmental science issue that has the possibility of significantly influencing the future energy policies of our state and our country.

As a teacher, there is nothing better than joining students in the learning process. To all of the people who have spoken to, e-mailed, or written letters to me and my students about this experience and about wind energy in Maine, thank you.