SOUTH PORTLAND – Students at the Kaler school in South Portland were on the lookout for their second project of the year when they stumbled across it during a tour of the state capital last fall.

While in Augusta with former state Rep. Jane Eberle, Lindsay McKay’s fourth-grade contingent ran across sixth-grade students from one of Maine’s “sister-schools” in Archangel, Russia. That chance encounter led to excited cross-talk about Maine things to see and do.

Fourth-grade students must take part in a Maine-based lesson, so the teachers asked their students to share where they thought their Russian peers should go. Like that, this year’s project was planning out a travel itinerary for future Archangel tourists, which will be presented to Russian students and teachers via Skype later this year.

“It’s really fun to plan this trip for real students in Russia,” said Kaler fourth-grader Miranda Young. “I think they are really going to like our trips. I’ve learned a lot about our state that I didn’t already know, even though I live here.”

Last week, a travel agent came to the school for a bit of vacation planning, while just across town at Skillin Elementary, kids were getting a lesson from a group of interns at Maine Medical Center. Both are examples of how the local schools are using business expertise in the community as an alternative to traditional learning.

The travel-planning lesson is part of what is know as “project-based learning,” put into play last year to combat absenteeism and low test scores at Kaler Elementary, which then became the James Otis Kaler Community School of Exploration and Inquiry. The new method encourages learning by doing, rather than rote memorization, taking advantage, Kaler Principal Diane Lang said at the time, of how the brain makes connections and stores new information.

“We now know from brain research that when you are simply told something, as in traditional class instruction, you retain maybe 20 percent,” said Lang. “However, when you are actually doing and participating in something, you retain 80 percent.”

The new method also empowers students to choose what they want to learn about, which can take some getting used to.

“It can be daunting,” said McKay, now in her fourth year teaching at Kaler. “It definitely is scary. I mean, we still have our same curriculum goals, it’s not like I come into the year having no idea what’s on my plate, I just have to be a little creative in looking for a way to access those different goals.”

It seems to be taking root. According to McKay, the students virtually set the lesson plan for this year’s project themselves by first brainstorming what they needed to know in order to make a successful presentation. The goal isn’t just to complete a project, of course, but for the students to convince Russian administrators to actually adopt all or part of their travel plan for future visits to Maine, said McKay. That, said Lang, is another important aspect of project-based learning – that the work has a genuine audience beyond the classroom teacher. That also puts the pressure on the teacher.

“There’s been a lot of late nights figuring out how to meet the needs the kids have expressed,” said McKay, with a laugh, “but seeing them take off and be so successful makes any work and flexibility it takes on my part to make it work worthwhile.”

Particularly helpful, said McKay, was a visit to her class last week by Steve Hewins, vice president of travel products and services for AAA Northern New England.

Hewins led students through the basics of travel planning, putting a bit of a crimp in their plans when he reminded them that, from South Portland, it’s a shorter trip to New York City than to Madawaska.

“If you try to tour Maine, you can’t go one place in the morning and another in the afternoon,” he said. “You can’t just drive anywhere. Wait until you get your licenses and drive, you won’t want to drive all that in one day, trust me.”

Having people from the community come into the classroom is part of the power about project-based learning, said McKay.

“It puts a lot of authenticity on what the kids are working on,” she said. “I think it was exciting for a lot of the kids to think, ‘Wow, there’s a whole job that does exactly what we’re doing now.’ It makes it very real for the kids as opposed to just something where the teacher, ‘OK, you have to do this now.’”

“South Portland has a real big focus on getting the community into the classroom,” said Eberle, director of business partnerships for the South Portland School Department dating to before her time in the Legislature. She’s shared the job with Molly Aldrich, who runs the job-shadowing program, since her first term in Augusta nine years ago.

“It’s important that students are exposed to professional collaborative experiences,” Eberle said. “It works both ways. The business leaders have a keen interest in seeing what the schools do and helping to make sure they get trained job applicants down the road, while the next question for the student becomes, ‘This is cool, how do I get a job like that?’

“There are just so many projects and programs that we facilitate,” she said.

On the same day Hewins was visiting Kaler, Eberle also had the students from Tufts University working internships at Maine Medical Center at Skillins Elementary.

The talks were focused on a third-grade unit about the human body, and while Superintendent Suzanne Godin said project-based learning is not quite ready to spread district-wide, Mark Judkins, a veteran teacher of 30 years, says many of the same elements apply.

“Whenever somebody other than the classroom teacher comes in to talk to the students, it immediately gets their attention and they are fully absorbed,” he said. “It’s been several days since the activity and the kids are still taking their pulses and talking about how they inflated the lungs on the dummy.

“We know it has real positive effect, especially when the presenters are young people,” said Judkins. “Just exposure to ideas through these volunteers gives the kids real powerful memories that will stick in there to toss around when they are older.”

“When students have a memory like that, it stays with them and leads from just a unit learning about the human body to genuine aspirations,” said Eberle. “Some of these students may end up becoming medical student themselves because of this.”


Whatever career path they end up on, giving students activities that are memorable provides them with what Judkins calls “D-moments,” or higher cognitive activity. As with project-based learning, the idea is not just to memorize and spit out facts, but to engage with other people and to generalize their knowledge and apply what they’ve learned thought experimentation, said Judkins.

And as McKay notes, each project is designed to cross-pollinate different disciplines, helping to build up associations in the mind. The travel project, for instance, involves a geography component in which students describe the differences between sandy spots like Old Orchard Beach and the more rock-bound places on Maine’s coast, and how those areas are formed.

There are components that hit on Maine history as well as skills in how to summarize nonfiction texts about the state’s more historical places, along with rhetoric lessons in how to justify opinions based on those descriptions.

“There’s also a math component because the kids have been instructed to put together the most cost-efficient trips,” said McKay. “They have to take into account gas prices, miles-per-gallon and travel distances, along with how to plan their stops.

“None of this random,” said Eberle. “It all relates to the ‘common core’ of skills out students need to master.”

“I think some of the places on their stops would be different than what you would find on the usual trip,” said McKay. “But the end result is that the kids are much more engaged in their learning. The hands-on component has been really valuable for a lot of them. It’s huge.”

“I think it’s better to learn from this project because we have to learn the information for ourselves. It gives us time to work in groups and develop teamwork skills,” said student Arianna DiCenso.

“I think it’s better than a plain social studies block because it is more entertaining and exciting. I’m glad we got picked to do this,” agreed Young, the Kaler fourth–grader.

“I think this project would be hard for other kids who didn’t know how to work well in groups, “ said McKenzie Brackett, echoing what Eberle says is the part of the point of bringing outside presenters into the classroom.

“One day,” said Eberle, “these students will be the leaders of our community.”

Third-grader Austin Cilley practices CPR during a presentation by Tufts University medical student Jason Hine at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland last week. The talks were focused on a third-grade unit about the human body, and are an example of how the district uses outside help to bring home lessons. “It’s been several days since the activity and the kids are still taking their pulses and talking about how they inflated the lungs on the dummy,” said teacher Mark Judkins.   
Hands go up with questions as Steve Hewins, vice president of travel for AAA-Northern New England, visits students at Kaler Elementary School in South Portland last week to discuss planning a trip around Maine.
A balloon sealed inside a soda bottle with duct tape serves as a model of a human lung for Skillin third-grader Brady Guay.  
Lindsey Jackson, a Tufts University fourth-year medical student, answers questions during a presentation on human anatomy to third-grade students at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland last week.

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