DANFORTH, Maine — A group of students from East Grand School were busy as proverbial bees at the town’s little public library on Tuesday.
The students, in grades 8-12, were members of a team with a project to accomplish: decorating and sprucing up the children’s section of the library to make it more attractive and appealing.
They were one of nearly a dozen teams that in recent days has been involved in a service project for the community that also incorporates learning.
The initiative was dubbed the Academic Olympics, the brainchild of Jenn Gilman, who teaches high school math and sixth grade math at the pre-K-through-12 school. Two others helped with the grunt work of developing the initiative: Jill Plummer, who teaches middle school language arts and social studies, and Andrew Latvis, who teaches middle school math and science.
The school had sponsored a Math Olympics for 10 years, but first-year principal Dawn Matthews suggested opening it up to other content areas.
“The question arose, why don’t we do something that’s not just math based?” Matthews said Tuesday in her office, noting that not all students are strong in math. “And so it became the Academic Olympics.”
“We wanted to make it acceptable to all students,” said Gilman, an initiative in which students could participate and succeed whatever their academic level. “It really has been able to incorporate all the students.”
Matthews praised Gilman, Plummer and Latvis for working “extremely hard at this.” It took several months of the three of them meeting after school, researching on their own, contacting community groups and collaborating with other teachers as they become involved.
In project-based learning, students work together as a team on a real-life application of their knowledge and skills to accomplish a task. In the case of East Grand School, the tasks or projects were community service oriented.
“It’s really about incorporating all the content areas,” explained Gilman.
In addition to the project, students participated daily in an online forum in which they had to answer questions, similar to taking an online class, and in challenges or contests linked to content areas. The teams also were required to give an oral briefing on their project to a panel of judges.
Besides the public library project, others included mapping local trails for hiking and snowshoeing, building a wheelchair accessible garden, preparing care package for people serving in the military, organizing a spring party for elementary school students, doing a fundraiser for a nonprofit, and putting on activities for a residential facility that serves mentally disabled persons.
“We had a lot of support from our administration and the community,” said Gilman. The teachers surveyed organizations in the community to identify needs and corresponding projects. Teachers also solicited funds from the community for supplies that were needed and recruited volunteer mentors for teams.
The Academic Olympics for students in grades 4-12 and was scheduled April 7-18. Teachers formed 11 teams of students with teachers selecting their team members and advising them; the teams were picked from two groups by grade, 4-7 and 8-12.
“It’s a lot of extra work” for teachers, said Gilman.
Teachers conferred each day after school about the program and will participate in a thorough debriefing afterward to discuss how it can be improved next year.
“Some of the students were really excited about this,” Gilman said. “Some of them didn’t want the hassle.”
But overall, she found students experienced satisfaction in being able to help their community.
Gilman’s team put the finishing touches on their project to aid the library on Tuesday. The students busied themselves with decorating, cleaning and organizing the children’s section. They made curtains for the windows, added pillows and blankets, and one family built a toy chest. The students also used fabric to design a “tree” to give the room a treehouse feel.
“Everybody had a different job that they needed to do, and we all worked really hard,” said Gilman.
“It’s been an absolutely wonderful week and a half so far,” said Matthews. “The kids have been so excited … I think they’ll always remember this.”