This Sustainable Coastal Communities, Educators, Students, and Schools (SUCCESS) Summer Institute helps form important connections between COA education students and veteran rural educators, while also tapping island and coastal educators’ curiosity and deepening their understanding of their communities as extensions of the classroom. As Island Institute’s education director, Yvonne Thomas, describes in her recent blog, due to the intergenerational nature of these convenings, differentiating between participants’ goals, interests, and experiences was key to a productive three days.

Below are a few highlights in terms of what island and coastal educators took away from these days of considering, sharing, and tinkering with old and new ideas about how to excite student learning of, by, and for the sustainability of their communities and the natural environments on which we depend. 

Mary Cowhey, math specialist and former second grade teacher at Jackson Street School in Northampton, MA, started the Institute off with many stories of very young children to middle schoolers engaged in, for example, a voter-registration drive in the context of learning about the history of the civil rights movement; a community garden plot that became the school garden and then a part of an outdoor classroom; creating a dichotomous key to inventory and sort the contents of the classroom’s garbage can to identify what the chickens or worms would eat, what would enrich the compost, what could be recycled, and what ultimately needed to be disposed; using student questions (Does the worm feel the hook? How can I design an experiment that wouldn’t hurt the worms?) and family resources to direct the curriculum, such as the practice of family homework (Where’s the closest compost pile in your neighborhood? How far do you have to walk to find milkweed plants?); creating a class book on elementary economics to learn about producers, consumers, and goods; convening Familias con Poder/Families with Power cafés to identify themes in the community that mattered to families, such as addressing the prevalence of Type I diabetes through family dances. A listening teacher wondered if she had help and learned how Mary engaged colleagues, parents, the PTO, and applied for and won grants to support these student-initiated, place-based learning experiences.

In a follow-up workshop, participants from COA, the Maine Outdoor School, Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary, Drinkwater School, Trenton and Swan’s Island schools, and the Island Institute engaged in predicting and graphing the continents on which their shirts were made and how to facilitate question-posing around these data. Participants graphed data from egg cartons to calculate the distance each egg carton travelled to Bar Harbor (ranging from five to over three thousand miles!). Cowhey emphasized that rigor does not equal speed in aiming for learning that engages critical thinking, close observation, question posing, and community engagement.

In breakout sessions, individual educators and school teams caucused to broaden and deepen their capacity to engage students in experiential, place-based education through direct experience or through guided brainstorm, visioning, design thinking, project-based learning curriculum design, and reflection processes. Participants in Explore sessions connected with COA’s Summer Field Studies teachers and students at the Peggy Rockefeller Farms, and with marine biologist Dr. Helen Hess and middle-school science teacher Bonnie Norwood to participate directly in experiential and place-based education in connection to farming and agriculture, marine environments, and service-learning, in the process deepening myriad practices such as provoking student questions, integrating curricula, and working with community partners. These participants reported very specific and concrete learning such as the use of docks and macro-lenses to observe and inventory marine invertebrate species diversity and abundance as well as general insights like, “student ownership of projects is crucial—and a good way to get this is through cultivating conversation about our world/local issues in the classroom.” A team of seven educators from one island school worked consistently throughout these sessions on specific goals of their leadership team; other smaller school teams worked with Rural Aspiration Project’s facilitator Val Peacock to understand theories of change and to come to a shared vision for their schools. In both large group and individual consultations, participants were able to practice and brainstorm curriculum design for project-based learning with RAP’s Korah Soll.

In writing evaluations, participants overwhelmingly reported meeting their goals, whether these were to meet new people/network, learn new skills, or plan with their school team. One noted in particular the intergenerational mix of educators, noting in the positive about “being able to be around a mix of professionals working in education as well as young college students.” Another valued the tailored team workspaces, applauding “having the institute recognize the very unique needs of our team and offer up a real opportunity to work on what we really needed. I was sorry we couldn’t take more advantage of the other workshops but feel that our staff will be more ready in the future to take the next steps on all place-based learning.”

As one participant summed up:

The entire summer institute worked very well! The flexibility to shape the institute to meet our needs was extremely appreciated; we wanted to spend some time on curriculum and some time exploring, and we were easily able to do both. It was exactly the right balance to be able to work on a project with facilitated support but also go out and…get ideas and inspiration from local educators. It was wonderful to have optional evening activities, such as the lovely trip on Osprey, and to connect with other educators…including Mary Cowhey! The whole institute felt rejuvenating and educational.

A note about the origins of SUCCESS

When Yvonne Thomas and I first met to discuss forming a collaboration between COA and Island Institute’s Education programs, it was important to both of us to co-plan a series of convenings that would give participating island and coastal educators—including COA education students—opportunities to express, discuss, and identify key components of the collaboration. After several meetings through the better part of the first year, the result was a composition of several complementary elements, including school visits and educator conferences First, there were a series of visits to area schools like the Troy Howard Middle School to see their curricular integration of an extensive school garden program. Subsequent visits to Expeditionary Learning schools in Maine—Casco Bay, King Middle, and Presumpscot—gave new and experienced teachers an up-close and personal view of how the EL model inspires, guides, challenges, and supports schools and their staff. These schools demonstrate a comprehensive school-wide focus on student and teacher learning that gives staff shared planning time, including lively discussions about student work that dive into the heart of what, how, and why we teach. These visits sparked enriching discussions about how to offer and engage K-12 students in direct experiences of their own families’ and peers’ cultural values and heritage, and with local organizations and places through collaborative projects, service-learning, and community-based education. The Summer Institutes were an important center of gravity to convene an intergenerational community of educators from student-teacher to veteran-teacher, inspiring authentic learning experiences centering around the subject matters arising from our island and coastal communities.