Too often when you ask students to describe how they feel about school, their response is “boring.”

Our newly adopted vision in Regional School Unit 5 states, “Learning is personalized to challenge students and explore their passions. Students choose from a variety of diverse and engaging experiences, including opportunities for active, experiential, real-world learning.” As we strive to attain this vision, we are working to ensure that every classroom has rigor, relevance, and connection.

Based upon a 2015 Gallup Poll, 75 percent of fifth-grade students felt engaged by school, while only 32 percent of 11th graders felt engaged. As students become older, keeping the love of learning alive requires creative, authentic and active ways for our students to deepen their learning.

In RSU 5, three recent experiences reveal how learning is becoming more authentic from the education I received years ago. My education was spent with the majority of time reading the textbook, answering the questions from the chapter, and taking quizzes to ensure I understood the content. This learning took place in quiet classrooms, filled with the teacher’s voice with the occasional questions being answered by students. My report cards frequently noted that I talked and laughed too much, which ended in conversations with my parents saying to listen more and basically “be quiet.”

Thankfully, education has evolved into more real world learning, encouraging the presence of student debate.

Our fifth grade students from Pownal and Freeport recently attended Chewonki’s Outdoor Classroom. Through this experience, students developed technical, communication, and leadership skills during daily lessons (pond study, farm systems, astronomy) and group challenges while living outdoors. Students were active, curious and laughed throughout the day. Whether it be the challenge of cooking on a campfire, being away from the comforts of home, reflecting on one’s leadership, or carrying gear to the campsite, students used words other than boring to describe the experience.

One parent wrote that “it was a truly transformative and positive experience” for her son. Students deepened their connections to one another, but also gained a greater understanding of themselves individually as they prepare to transition to middle school. The quiet voices of yesteryear were only evidenced when students were sleeping.

Another example of engaging learning was at Freeport Middle School’s “Space Day.” Through a partnership with the Maine Space Consortium, middle school students who reside in Durham, Freeport, and Pownal attended various sessions. Over 25 scientists were present. Sessions were presented by NASA, college professors, engineers, FHS STEM teachers, Civil Air Patrol, US Navy, and Challenger Learning System. Throughout the day, students were inspired by conversations about space, space travel, and future opportunities.

Another natural way to engage learners is through theater. This past weekend, our advanced theater class performed “A Piece of My Heart,” about the women who served in Vietnam. Our students handled a fascinating, challenging and serious topic with maturity, empathy, and sensitivity. This manner of learning gives a clearer sense of purpose by empowering students to become more active participants in their learning.

Powerful experiences like Chewonki, Space Day, and theater will be remembered for years and can influence the pathway for students after high school. Students of all abilities can learn alongside one another when learning is made more experiential and active. As we seek to create learning that is more experiential, requires more student responsibility, and inspires student debate, our schools will become stronger. No standardized scores will be needed as evidence.

The evidence will be in the graduates we send off into the world: curious, passionate, empathetic, and with the ability to be effective communicators and problem-solvers.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected].

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