The sophomores at Telstar High School in Bethel are interviewing community and family members to better understand rural Maine and their role in it.

After reading the BDN Maine Focus series about small towns’ futures called Rural Edges, Korah Soll, founding director of the Rural Aspirations Project, proposed a two-month unit at Telstar called Defining Community. Her organization helps schools engage more students through hands-on and real-world learning.

As part of their school day, the approximately 40 students are creating questions, interviewing people, doing research and writing articles — that they hope to publish — to help them define what community means to them. The school has about 190 students.

On Monday, the Maine Focus team helped the students brainstorm some of the questions they’ll ask community members about why they decided to make the Bethel area their home and what makes it distinct. 

One of the goals is for students to start thinking now about how one day they may help lead their town.

“This is a way for them to find their place in the future,” Soll said. “I feel like the future of rural communities is the kids who are in the classroom right now.”

The project is also meant to make the classroom experience real to students, many of whom have jobs at Sunday River ski resort or at local restaurants.

“They work really hard and represent Telstar well,” said Kristin Dacko, dean of students. “I wish I could see some of that drive and enthusiasm out in the community here in the classroom.”

So the school is bringing those two worlds together through special units like Defining Community. It’s also transitioning to proficiency-based learning, as required under Maine law, which requires students to demonstrate that they’ve mastered a range of topics and skills in order to graduate as opposed to earning a passing grade.

“It’s a shift in mindset. They’re not just teaching content. They’re teaching students,” Principal Cheryl Lang said of proficiency-based learning. “It bridges the world they live in with the world they learn in.”

Proficiency-based learning will mean students don’t necessarily have to take a test to demonstrate they know the material. They could design a project based on their interests.

The Defining Community unit, for instance, will allow students to show they understand certain writing and social studies standards, said Melissa Poston, who teaches humanities.

“I want them to be more engaged in the community and find value in their community and have a sense of place,” she said.

For her, school isn’t only about learning specific academic skills but knowing how to use them.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...