October’s beauty is truly unsurpassed by any other month in Maine. Students have settled into school routines and it is a rich and opportune time for learning. One goal of our recently adopted strategic plan is for all RSU5 students to regularly engage in meaningful student-centered learning. This fall our students experienced many and varied opportunities that sparked their excitement about learning.

At Freeport Middle School, our seventh grade students spent a day collecting data at Winslow Park.   Science teacher Elaine Despres organized a day of learning focused on the question of what change looks like over time. As students completed observations, collected, analyzed, and interpreted data, they learned how the climate is changing in Maine and globally. Under the guidance and expertise of Dr. Brian Beal, head scientist at the Downeast Research Institute, students placed clam recruitment boxes in the mud last June with the hope that clam larvae would settle and grow in the boxes over the summer. Dr. Beal worked closely with our students to help process the boxes. Students completed tasks that involved clam rinsing and bagging, measuring rockweed, exploring a tidal pool, and analyzing wooly hemlock – an invasive species in Maine! Future classes will use this year’s data as a baseline and continue to collect data to discover the impact of change over time.

While field work provides great opportunities for students to apply their learning in different contexts, student-centered work does not require children to leave the classroom. Teachers identify specific curriculum models that are researched based, have strong evidence of impacting learning but also are student focused. An example of student-centered work from the Teachers’ College Units of Study is the aspect of club work in reading workshop. Usually four students work together in “clubs.” They might read through the same novel together, or research a topic with a shared set of texts. The club works together to make their own reading plan and set goals. By meeting together daily, students grow a deeper understanding of the text or topic. By negotiating choices and making decisions together, students are the driving force behind how their club is learning and growing together.

Sometimes student-centered learning goes in a very different direction. This year at Freeport High School nine of our students voyaged out to sea for five days. “I’ve never been outside this much in my life,” was one of the reflections from a student sailing on the schooner Harvey Gamage, a 131-foot sailing school that is operated through Ocean Passages. During this trip, students learned how to be out of their comfort zone, electronic-free, and fully engaged. “We don’t have our phones, so we’re not stressing over drama, or how many “likes” we have. What we think are ‘flaws’ do not matter.” The students actively participated in the tasks required to run a ship 24 hours a day. They triangulated their location, acquired and used sailing terminology, tied knots, hoisted and furled sails, read gauges, washed dishes, cleaned the decks and “bowls” (toilets), and staffed the night watch. Students quickly learned how to pull together as a team. A student articulately reflected, “I feel like we are one, and even though many of us may not admit it, this trip has been an eye-opener in many ways.”

With our mission statement we strive “to inspire and support every learner by challenging minds, building character, sparking creativity, and nurturing passions.” As the leaves on the trees turn and fall, the beauty of student-centered learning is that it truly sparks passions and challenges minds, building our students into our future scientists, seamen, and writers!

Becky Foley is the superintendent of RSU5.

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