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‘The common good’: Maine VFW honors Harpswell teacher for fostering civic engagement

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Xavier Kane and Emmett Stuart, two students in Abby Svenson’s fifth grade class at Harpswell Community School, worked together to fold an American flag on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in February. Xavier held two corners high off the ground while Emmett concentrated on carefully turning and folding the fabric to form a compact triangle.

They have done this before, many times over the course of the school year. But it’s never by rote. They, along with every other student in the room, have learned what the flag represents — not just their country, but those who fought for it. Not just history, but freedom.

Lessons like these that engage students with concepts of civic responsibility, patriotism, and democratic values are the reason Svenson was named the State of Maine Elementary School Teacher of the Year by the Department of Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“For me, being a patriot means not just thinking of what would be good for me, but what do I think would benefit all groups of people,” Svenson said in an interview during a break in her school day. “And no one should be excluded. I always come back to the common good.”


A ‘role model teacher’

Svenson was nominated for the VFW award by school social worker Catherine Webbert, who called Svenson a “role model teacher” for the welcoming environment she creates in her classroom, and for how she expands on the required curriculum in a way that encourages students to engage with history.

Svenson first won at the post level. According to Roger Stevens, commander of VFW Post 2197 in Topsham, “when we read through (her resume), we felt that she was more than qualified. She’s really an amazing woman, a great teacher.”

Svenson proceeded to win the district prize and, in January, learned that she had taken top honors in the state and become a finalist for the national award.

According to the VFW website, the Smart/Maher National Citizenship Education Teacher Award was established in 1999 to recognize certified K-12 teachers for promoting citizenship education. There is no military service requirement. Candidates can be nominated by anyone, including family and community members.

Winners of the national awards at the elementary, middle and high school levels will be announced at the VFW convention in Lexington, Kentucky, in July. Each will receive $1,000 toward their professional development and an additional $1,000 for their school, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to the convention.

Harpswell Community School Principal Anita Hopkins called the award “recognition for a great job done,” citing Svenson’s commitment to her students and her conscientious approach to curriculum development. Svenson is the fifth grade representative to the district’s Social Studies Curriculum Committee, responsible for designing the units taught throughout the year.

“Even more so in the times that we’re in, I think it’s important for kids to know … the facts about our history and how we got to where we are and how we can continue to live up to the ideals our country was founded on,” Hopkins said. “And I think that Abby (provides) that in really thoughtful ways.”

From left, teacher Abby Svenson listens to students Emmett Stuart, Payton Welner, and Shannon McGuire discuss their review of a historical map during a lesson at Harpswell Community School on Feb. 28. Bisi Cameron Yee photo



Svenson grew up in New Jersey in a family of teachers, but teaching was the last thing she wanted to do. Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree in television and radio in 2003 and worked in video production for MSNBC. But the news business led her to wonder: Could things be different if people understood each other better?

“What’s our first group setting where we learn about each other? At school,” she said. “Ideally public school.”

So after she and husband Erik, both of whom had vacationed in Maine, moved to Brunswick, she returned to school herself. She received her teaching certification in 2009 and a master’s degree in teaching and learning in 2011, both from the University of Southern Maine.

After a single interview, she accepted a job to teach at Harpswell Community School in 2008. The family moved to Harpswell seven years later. “I actually felt closer to the community,” Svenson said. “I had taught there and knew so many families.” She also wanted her own children to attend the school.


Marines and minutemen

From the beginning, she sought out opportunities to reinforce the curriculum in ways that were hands-on, collaborative, and encouraged interaction with the broader community.

Raising and lowering the flag was one of the first such activities she landed on, and the school’s fifth graders have had that responsibility for the last 15 years.

Both of Svenson’s grandfathers served in World War II. Respect for the flag and for the Pledge of Allegiance “were drilled into me as a child,” Svenson said.

She invited U.S. Marines to demonstrate the proper way to fold the flag. She wanted her students to know that “the American flag is more than just a piece of cloth, that it represents those who have fought for and died to protect this country.” She encourages them to fold the flag every time as if a service member is present in the room.

Svenson developed a district-wide social studies curriculum that introduces students to American history, beginning with the European explorers and ending with an in-depth look at the U.S. Constitution. Along the way, they examine the events that led up to the Revolutionary War and the formation of American democracy.

Svenson’s innovative lesson plans for her class have even included Revolutionary War reenactors.

“While we can’t have a full-scale battle, we did get special permission to have a campfire and set up a primitive campsite that the Continental Army would have used,” she said. They sampled foods that would have been part of army life at the time, dried fruit and hard biscuits, and got permission from the school district and the fire department for the reenactors to fire muskets loaded with blanks so the kids could experience how that might have looked and sounded and smelled.

“That’s what I wanted them to see. Battle was hazy, an unsure atmosphere. It’s not crystal clear what’s happening,” Svenson said.


Connecting past with present

Collaboration with community organizations is a hallmark of Svenson’s approach to teaching. While she has a special interest in social studies, she teaches a full slate of subjects, including English, math and science. She works with the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust to plan hands-on science activities that explore the area’s unique ecosystems.

In May, the Harpswell Historical Society is sponsoring a tea tax debate with Harpswell Community School and Bowdoin Central School, inspired by the Boston Tea Party. Former state Rep. Seth Berry will moderate the debate as Samuel Adams.

Outside of her role at school, Svenson leads Harpswell’s Girl Scout troop, which serves the community through activities such as beach cleanups and support for older residents.

Svenson has been a driving force in fundraising for class field trips, ensuring every child has the opportunity to participate.

In the fall, students enjoy a four-day camping expedition to Wiscasset’s Chewonki Foundation, where they prepare their own campsites and help tend to the on-site farm.

“We grow as a class together,” Svenson said, citing the team-building aspects of the experience.

In the spring, the class takes a day trip to Boston to visit the Museum of Science and see firsthand the historic landmarks they have read about. It’s the culmination of a year of learning, a chance for students to see connections between the past they’ve been studying and the present they live in.


‘They can make the world better’

Svenson challenges her students to think beyond the basic curriculum — not just to memorize the Bill of Rights, but to consider which right is most important to them and why.

Svenson’s students enjoy the lessons and take to heart what they are learning.

“If we don’t know the past, how do we know what’s coming?” said Shannon McGuire. “If we don’t know the consequences, how do we know to correct them?”

Bryce Spier likes to learn about the past too. He appreciates that Svenson’s teaching style encourages deeper thinking. “(She) makes it fun. She expands our knowledge in a different way that we’re not used to.”

Vanessa McClanahan looks forward to voting once she’s old enough. Preston Leary is reading about the Boston Massacre and looking forward to the class trip in April.

Emmett Stuart admires how American patriots beat the British against great odds.

“George Washington didn’t give up,” he said.

He also agreed that his teacher deserved an award.

“I think it’s amazing and I’m super proud of her,” he said.

For Svenson, the VFW award is as much a tribute to the work her students have done as it is to her own efforts.

“We really look into how government works,” she said. “How it cannot function without citizen involvement. (How) everyone’s voice really does matter. People don’t think that’s part of the elementary school curriculum, but it is. We’re trying to set them up for the future so that they can advocate and change things, and make the world better. They really can.”

To nominate a teacher for the Smart/Maher Award, contact your local VFW post.

Bisi Cameron Yee is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in Midcoast Maine whose work has appeared in The Lincoln County News, the Bangor Daily News, the Boothbay Register, and The Maine Monitor. She holds an associate degree in photojournalism.

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