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Inspiring Humanities/ELA Learning at PPS

Portland Public Schools educators at the high school, middle school and elementary level recently shared some examples of innovative humanities and English language arts (ELA) teaching and learning in our schools this year. Read on to learn more details:

At Lyman Moore Middle School, seventh-grade social studies teachers David Hilton and Jon Roderick are each teaching a Wabanaki Studies mini-unit this year on residential schools, a network of boarding schools created to isolate Indigenous children from their own culture and religion in order to assimilate them into the dominant culture. Hilton said students are learning about colonization, language loss, cultural genocide, the role of religion, and the parallel histories of the residential school systems in Canada and the United States. Hilton noted that, in addition to social studies learning, this unit is rich in nonfiction reading and writing. As part of the unit, seventh-grader Selma Ahmed reflected on language loss and forced assimilation in a poem she wrote:

If I lost my language

I'd lose myself

I'd lose everything in it

And everybody else

They say “Salam” I look the other way

Oh how I wonder could I speak this way?

Now I know, more than anyone else,

If I lose my language, I’ll lose myself.

On Feb. 15, the Portland High School Social Studies Department hosted its 2023 National History Day Fair. The event was held in the gym this year because there were twice as many student presenters and research projects on display this year as compared to last year.  The theme in 2023 was Frontiers in History: People, Places, and Ideas. Students worked hard and were eager to showcase their research for all of their peers and teachers to see! 

At East End Community School, teacher Megan Bergman has found that third-graders enjoy being part of a book club as much as adults do – and that being in a book club helps students strengthen and practice their literacy skills. Bergman groups students with similar literacy goals in their own book club. Whenever possible, students are offered a choice of titles and enjoy working together to make a selection. Many of the books dovetail with what students are studying in class, so in the book club, students can apply and practice the standards they’re working on in class while having opportunities to support each other's learning. The clubs are an engaging way for students to discuss and write about what they’re reading. The clubs are student-led, and Bergman believes her students enjoy their independence as they read together, discuss the book, and record important thoughts, ideas and wonderings about the book. 

At Gerald E. Talbot Community School, students in teacher Paige Fors’ fourth-grade classroom are learning what inspires people to write. Students are building close reading skills by reading "Love That Dog," a novel in verse by Sharon Creech, and several poems: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams; "The Tiger" by William Blake; and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. Together, they analyzed the poems to determine a theme and to identify characteristics of poetry in order to effectively summarize the poems. Next, students will plan and write an informative paragraph about what inspires Jack, the character in “Love That Dog,” to write poetry. Students will join expert groups, study a poet of their choice and write an essay about what inspired their poet to write poetry. Finally, students will write their own original poems, focusing on word and phrase choice and adding punctuation for effect. Students also will practice reading new poems aloud for fluency. At the end of the unit students will participate in a poetry presentation in which they read aloud an original poem and then explain why they were inspired to write their original poem.

At King Middle School, social studies teacher Tim Mason-Osann shared that the Sebago grade 7 team engaged in a multidisciplinary 14-week expedition to explore the question: "Can we undo damage that has been done to the Wabanaki people of Maine?" Through learning about the history of the Wabanaki, as Maine’s Indigenous peoples are collectively known, and their relationship with the land and the water here in what is now Maine, students created a website with a variety of different reparation proposals. The website and student work can be viewed HERE.

Matt Bernstein, a humanities/social studies teacher at Casco Bay High School and the 2023 Maine Teacher of the Year, recently helped Casco students learn what it’s like to be a teacher – through a unique, experiential learning experience designed to encourage students to consider becoming teachers themselves. Every January and April, Casco pauses classes so students can engage in week-long, elective courses called intensives, in which students can study a topic in depth, all day, for five days. This January, a new intensive called “Casco Teaches” was among those offered. Co-led by Bernstein and Casco Principal Derek Pierce, the course introduced students to the teaching profession.

Bernstein said students began by reflecting on inspirational educators that had taught them and memorable lessons they’d experienced. They then explored two guiding questions: What makes a great educator? And, what makes a great lesson? They researched core practices that support high quality teaching and learning and did field observations in district classrooms. They then developed a lesson plan and taught the lesson to their peers. At the end of the week, many of the students reported they’re considering teaching as a career, Bernstein said. Read more about Casco Teaches in an article Bernstein wrote for the Maine Department of Education website.

At East End Community School, teacher/librarian Shana Genre has instituted First Chapter Friday to encourage students’ interest in chapter books. First Chapter Friday is designed to get emerging readers interested in reading chapter books. In each installment, Shana makes a video of her reading the first chapter of a high-interest book.

“Many kids are reluctant to make the jump from graphic novels to chapter books, and I'm hoping my FCF videos get them interested in the great titles on our shelves,’’ Genre explained. “My target audience is any emergent reader, although I think most of what I select would appeal to grades 1-4, depending on where kids are as readers. I try to choose what are considered "hi-lo" books—as in high interest, low reading level, as I want kids to feel successful if they are just starting out with chapter books.”

However, she added, “I do sometimes include a book that's a little higher so that the videos will appeal to a variety of audiences. I like to include some of the newer titles, and I also like to include titles that help to reflect our diverse student population.” Genre said she always thinks about an approach to diverse books and authors called mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors when she’s selecting books.

Genre emails the video out each week on either Wednesday or Thursday so that teachers can decide if they will include it in their plans for Friday. “Here at East End, I know that Tracey Alexander is using them each week with her students during Friday snack,” Genre said. “They don't let her forget it!”