ABOVE: Sadie, left, and Ethan, both in 6th grade at Harpswell Coastal Academy, work on a project. On the right, teacher Kate McAlaine reviews elements of writing with students.

ABOVE: Sadie, left, and Ethan, both in 6th grade at Harpswell Coastal Academy, work on a project. On the right, teacher Kate McAlaine reviews elements of writing with students.


Volunteer work is often measured in terms of what is given — but in Harpswell, charter school students and young land trust volunteers have found that when they give, they gain something in return.

At Harpswell Coastal Academy, students in an interdisciplinary humanities and science class are writing children’s books to teach environmental awareness to younger students. HCA teachers Kate McAlaine and Micha Depper, who developed and co-teach the mixed grade 6 and 7 class, are looking to pair their students with elementary reading buddies when the book project is done.



“They’re writing stories that teach the scientific method by focusing on real, environmental issues,” said McAlaine. “They’re psyched about the idea of working with younger students and they’re very conscientious about making sure their word choice is appropriate for a younger audience.”

Does simplifying complex material for a younger audience impede the learning process for the older students? Not according to Garrit, grade 7, who is writing a story about ocean acidification.



“You don’t truly understand something until you can explain it to a small child,” said Garrit, paraphrasing an adage often attributed to Albert Einstein. “If I can’t explain ocean acidification to a 9- year-old, then I don’t truly understand it.”

Garrit’s story is about a girl, Sally, who collects shells from a private beach behind her house and sells them. Sally notices that the shells are smaller than they used to be, so she goes to the local library where she meets the librarian’s son, Bryce. The two research the problem, discover the cause, and then develop a hypothesis for a solution.

“The hard part is trying to make it interesting for little kids,” said Garrit. “I have a little brother and I’ve been asking his advice — he suggested I add in a male character and he told me to name him Bryce.”

Riley, grade 7, is working on a story about a gentleman lobster named Sir Shellof who develops a bad case of shell disease. Sadie and Ethan, in grade 6, are tackling paralytic shellfish poisoning with a story about a fox and squirrel who get sick after eating shellfish in a red tide zone. Samantha and Rosemary, in grades 8 and 7, are writing a story about the connection between warming water trends and severe weather.

“We’re writing a story about three friends whose urchin farm is kind of abandoned because the water’s oxygen level is really low,” said Lia, grade 6. Lia and Yvette, grade 7, have worked so closely on the project that they now seamlessly finish each other’s sentences.

“The story is about how our ocean community is changing,” said Lia, “but it’s a children’s book so we need to make sure that we turn …”

“A complicated scientific problem that is happening, and happening more frequently,” Yvette added, “into a story that second and third graders can understand …”

“And would have fun reading,” concluded Lia.

“For younger audiences, I think it’s really amazing to see people that aren’t that much older than you do some really impressive things,” said Depper, who with McAlaine wrote a model story for the class about invasive green crabs.

“I remember in elementary school feeling like middle schoolers were huge, and high schoolers were adults and adults were a whole other class of organism,” said Depper. “So to see someone who is just three or four years older than you produce a refined, revised product is a really good motivator.”

The mentorship aspect of the project is also a good motivator for the older students, he said.

“We try to avoid at all costs projects that are just busy work — we want to make sure that we have a real purpose,” said Depper. “Mentorship elevates the quality of student interactions, and they’re excited to share their work.”

For many volunteers, participation in local projects increases a sense of community and belonging — and for Jamison Pacheco, who volunteers with the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, it also offers valuable job training.

“I like learning new things,” said Pacheco, a University of Maine graduate, “and you never know when a new skill set is going to come in handy.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree in veterinary sciences, Pacheco said she declined an opportunity to enter a master’s program when the salaries for young veterinarians dropped 50 percent.

“I would have had massive loans and not really had a way to pay them off, so I walked away,” said Pacheco. “After walking away from that, though, I needed to figure something else out.

“I like being outside, I like mission-based work, I like something that engages me, where I can use my brain and feel at the end of the day that I did something meaningful,” she said. “I started volunteering with cultural nonprofits and filling out the skill set I need to do that instead of veterinary work.”

What started with a simple letter to Julia McLeod, HHLT’s outreach coordinator, has led to training in graphic design and grant writing.

“My background is not in graphic design but I’m good at figuring things out,” said Pacheco, “so (McLeod) sat me down in front of the web platform they use, told me the basics and away we went.”

Organizations like the land trust attract younger families to Harpswell, said Pacheco, who look for communities within an easy commuting distance to Brunswick and Portland, and value the town’s “eclectic businesses, ocean access” and extensive trail system.

“Aside from getting a lot of personal satisfaction out of volunteering,” said Pacheco, “it’s a way for me to give back because I take advantage of all that the land trust offers.

“There is a long list of projects that they would like to do and some of them require younger volunteers, people who are more tech savvy,” she said. “If people that are willing to contribute to projects, then the land trust can keep giving all of these great things to the community.”

For more information about Harpswell Coastal Academy, visit www.harpswellcoastalacademy.org. For more information about Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, visit www.hhltmaine.org.

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