Cailey Buckner, a Mt. Ararat Middle School student, walks her dogs as one of the daily remote learning projects offered through the school’s alternative education program. Contributed photo

TOPSHAM — Trying to engage students in class is challenging enough for teachers, who are now striving to foster learning from students’ own homes.

The spread of the coronavirus caused most schools in the southern Midcoast to close to students March 16, including Mt. Ararat Middle School and its 12-student alternative education program known as the Sheepscot Team. Teacher John Hawley said his students aren’t typical learners in any class setting so he had to put his thinking cap on.

“The way they learn, through projects and hands-on activities, we wanted to keep the spirit of that as much as possible with the remote learning,” Hawley said.

He and the program’s other teacher have brainstormed about five pages full of projects students can choose from. Many are tied into themes the students have studied in class centered around culinary, engineering and aquaponics and also overarching themes like the vaping epidemic and plastic pollution in the ocean. He created a scavenger hunt of activities for students. One of the projects is to collect 25 pieces of plastic alongside the road and sort what is recyclable, returnable or trash, for example. He also created a point-system for completed projects to help motivate the students.

“The idea is to offer many entry points for projects in hopes that students will embrace one or more tasks, taking it to a higher level,” he said.

Mt. Ararat Middle School student Cailey Buckner has collected several bags of trash from the side of the road and the coastline near her home in Harpswell.

He saw that happen with seventh-grader Cailey Buckner, who started picking up plastic debris along Long Point Road in Harpswell where she lives. A lover of nature and wildlife, she wanted to get outside and do something productive. She also filled more bags with trash from the coastline near her house. Eventually, she had to get her grandfather to help haul bags of trash from along the road with the car.

“It’s not a big impact but it helps,” she said.

Buckner said she plans to continue picking up trash in other areas of town. She’s also looking forward to some more cooking and family gardening projects and rack up more project points.

Hawley said students have done a lot of cooking and meal preparation. Eighth-grader Abbie Jacques of Bowdoinham has been making breakfast for her family and has mastered homefries. She also made a birdhouse.

“She’s been doing a little bit of everything really, from cooking, doing stuff with wood out in the shop and she’s been doing stuff online with her teachers and (growing) some plants,” said her mother, Misty Blodgett. “From a parent’s standpoint, I think she’s really achieved a lot of the same goals that she does through her class time  at school.”

Hawley said another student is spinning off from the engineering program by helping his father renovate the bathroom. Another student plans to use his dad’s welding equipment to build a go-cart but has to work off the cost of materials at home.

He asks students to do one project a day, but there’s no minimum time attached because it’s about the product. It allows students to learn authentically, problem solve and gives some purpose to their day.

“I don’t want it to seem like busywork,” he said. “I want them to realize that if I really put my mind to this thing and I do it well, and if it’s done in 15 minutes, that’s great.”

It’s unknown when schools will reopen or if it will be this academic year.

“Either way, there’s a lot of opportunities inside of school but also outside of school,” Buckner said.

Abbie Jacques, an eighth-grader at Mt. Ararat Middle School, constructs a birdhouse at her Bowdoinham home as part of the remote learning taking place within the school’s alternative education program. Contributed photo

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