Teachers in Portland’s public elementary schools have found many creative ways to tap into children’s natural curiosity about how the world works. Learning comes alive as students tend a vegetable garden or study the changes on a city street over several decades. They may not even realize that they are learning about math, science, social studies and literacy in the process.

On a recent, crisp and sunny morning, first-graders at Reiche Community School gathered in a learning space near their school’s garden. They then embarked on a scavenger hunt to find corn, tomatoes, herbs, worms and other living creatures in the school’s many raised beds.

Later in the year, they’ll learn about harvesting, saving seeds, the history of foods grown in Maine, how to cook healthy foods from scratch and how to plan and lay out a garden. Reiche and Riverton elementary schools both have year-long garden classes taught through partnerships with Cultivating Community. Several other Portland elementary schools also have integrated school gardens into their curricula.

Peaks Island Elementary School is teaching students about stewardship and their role in preserving their unique island home. This fall, they began working with the Island Institute on a study of weather and climate.

Peaks students are using a weather station on the school roof and other instruments to track temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation and cloud type and cover. All data is entered into an online database at weatherblur.com. The students will compare their results to data from other schools on Maine islands and in Alaska. Scientists will review the data and share their conclusions.

Twice a week, Peaks students check two lobster traps stationed at nearby docks and record what species are inside. They are looking for any signs that climate change is affecting ocean fauna.

The school also is continuing a project about invasive plant species.

Last year, students learned how invasive plants are damaging the island. They worked with experts to identify the six most prominent invasives in their schoolyard and they helped eradicate them. Those efforts will continue this year. In addition, the school hopes to involve students in eradicating invasive plants from land owned by the Peaks Island Land Preserve.

Ocean Avenue Elementary School is the first elementary school in Maine to join International Baccalaureate, a nonprofit that helps students acquire international perspectives as they develop their intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills.

Students work on units that encompass several subject areas at once. Each unit begins with students’ questions, and that leads to exploration.

Ocean Avenue kindergarteners learn about their senses and how they use them to gather information about the world. First-graders study how our society deals with waste and how that impacts the environment.

Fourth-graders investigate biomes: plant and animal communities that exist because of soil and climate conditions. Fifth-graders learn about concepts such as civics and economics as they study colonization.

Ocean Avenue has started teaching Spanish in second grade rather than third grade, a change made to fit IB’s protocol of beginning second language instruction by age 7. The school will deepen its involvement in the IB program over the next few years as it pursues certification.

I love my job as Portland’s superintendent. But when I hear about students planting school gardens, learning to speak Spanish or identifying creatures inside lobster traps, I wish I were in elementary school again. Don’t you?

Sidebar Elements

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at [email protected]. Read his blog at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/.