Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 28, 2014
Creativity and collaboration shape teaching on Isle au Haut
by Tevlin Schuetz
Schoolteacher Paula Greatorex is excited to begin her eighth year at the Isle au Haut Rural School.
One of the last remaining one-room schoolhouses operating in the country, the Island School, as it is referred to on the island, is an integral part of the community, and its students experience education in a way that few people can remember nowadays—let alone imagine.
But learning at the Island School happens in a modern, dynamic way. School trips, technology and collaboration with other schools help to broaden the scope of what island kids experience.
The typical school day begins with a group meeting of all students, and then they separate into kindergarten through third grade on one side of the room and seventh and eighth graders on the other, Greatorex said. They usually work on the same subjects at the same times of day, but Greatorex and her teaching assistant must present the material with sensitivity to different age levels.
Outside the classroom, the students go on field trips, the first of which will be in late October. In science the students are studying ocean ecology, so there will also be a related trip to midcoast Maine.
Greatorex is especially enthusiastic about the success of the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collective, or TLC. Started in 2009, TLC continues to offer opportunities for collaborative teaching and learning for the schools on Monhegan, Isle au Haut, Matinicus, Frenchboro, Cliff Island and the Cranberry Isles. The organization brings together teachers and students for joint projects, field trips and other shared learning activities.
Greatorex explained: “[It is] very exciting. It made me, as a teacher, feel less isolated because it’s much more fun. It’s much more effective and creative when you have colleagues to work with.”
It has enriched the students’ education because they have more students to interact with as well, Greatorex added.
TLC begins every year with an inter-island event geared toward welcoming the students, Greatorex said. The event will be hosted on the Cranberry Isles this year, and it will feature a kickoff focused on science and social studies.
As part of the State of Maine-oriented curriculum schools must cover, schools teach Maine state history, geography and past and present issues, which is a “huge undertaking,” Greatorex said. But TLC schools can approach that together.
As a part of the state-oriented subject matter, Greatorex hinted at a desire to offer a focused study covering historical trends in river settlement and related job creation, and she wants to touch on present day issues, like the East/West Corridor, for example. She stressed the importance of providing students with unbiased information regarding controversial topics and to allow them to form their own opinions through study.
Greatorex said she appreciates both the autonomy she has at her school to teach how she sees fit, as well as strong support from the school board, the parents and the community. “[I have] the ability to be quite free and creative with what I do,” she said.
With such a small number of kids—just eight this year—Greatorex has “freedoms to take the kids out into the world and…to give them experiences that they might not have if they were in a larger school,” she said. “That, to me, is the most interesting part of the job.”
Teaching in a one-room school can be tricky, however. The kids are often working on similar subjects, but at different levels of skill and understanding. “Juggling the different age levels and skill levels…makes it a little challenging,” Greatorex said.
When asked about proficiency-based education, which is currently being introduced into schools as required by state law, Greatorex said she is always concerned “with proficiency and the responsibility of covering all the subjects and making sure students are ready for high school.” But she is not worried about missing her marks, because she sticks to national standards for curriculum. Plus, “the kids in these small schools tend to do quite well when they get to high school, and a large percentage of them do go on to college,” she said.
When asked what the future of teaching on the Island holds, Greatorex said she hopes TLC will continue to thrive, and she pointed to technology playing a greater role in providing new ways to educate students. She revealed that online applications and courses have already been game-changers in supplying different perspectives and approaches to teaching. “In a larger public school, you can move a child from one teacher to another if it’s not working out, and here you can’t do that. Technology is very helpful. It has certainly made a big difference in the past seven years.”