"We are not the future, we are right now."
During the beginnings of sugaring season, I had the pleasure to visit Thetford Academy with some middle and high school teachers from Claremont to learn more about their outdoor program. In the process, I learned about the power of student centered learning, especially at the high school level. Here are a couple of examples from Thetford.
Chris Schmidt, the Timber Framing teacher, told us about the project the current students were taking on this year and shared about past projects. Each year, the timber framing students research, design, and build a structure on the school campus. This year they are creating a compost bin system for the school garden. Students researched different designs, came up with proposals for the design they thought would be best, and presented their proposals to school administrators, teachers, and staff. Once a design is chosen, the students get to work purchasing the wood and preparing it as well as preparing the foundation for the structure. This year after the students build the structure, the 7th grade class will teach the 12th graders how the compost system works and why it is important. In year’s past, Chris's class has made dugouts for baseball fields, trail kiosks, a pavilion at the soccer field, and an outdoor classroom space with a built in storage area (a 2 year project).
Scott Ellis leads the Outdoor Class. They meet for 3 hours each afternoon, which gives them plenty of time to get outside to some of the further reaches of campus. This class is interdisciplinary and students receive credit for multiple subjects. During the month of March, the focus is on sugaring. Some of the students brought us down to their sugar bush area while others went to work setting up the sugar house and sugaring equipment. The students explained how their sugaring system works and about the equipment they use to collect the sap. Each student was also conducting research projects on sugaring. One student researched the Native American method of collecting sap and set up an experiment to test if the bucket method or the Native American method would yield more sap during the season. He cut a v-shaped into the base of 2 sugar maple trees and stuck a straight stick in the bottom of the v for the sap to run into a bucket that was set on the ground. In 2 other trees, he set-up spiles about 3-4 feet up the trunk catching the sap in metal buckets. Back at the sugar house, other students were set-up to teach us how maple sugar is made. They were practicing their presentation skills on us. Later in the month, local elementary students would be visiting the sugar house to learn about the process and taste sugar on snow. It was apparent that the students had taken ownership over the sugar house, understood the process of sugaring, and enjoyed engaging us with the subject.
There were many other times during the day that we heard about students leading the decision making and being involved in the design of the physical campus and their own learning. They were learning skills they could use now, not just in the future. Student ownership over projects from design to implementation to presentation is a way of learning at Thetford Academy that empowers students. It was obvious to me that the students' ideas, opinions, and interests were valued by the teachers and staff.