Machias school specializes in hands-on learning

MACHIAS – Third graders at Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School recently sampled cow tongue, made hand-dipped candles and fashioned a game using paper cups, pencils, string and wooden balls.

They worked with their art teacher to create silhouettes of themselves and dress them in pioneer-era styles.

It was all part of a hands-on unit designed to teach students a bit about the life of the American pioneer.

Article image: Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School third graders demonstrate the ball-in-the-cup game for the education Commissioner.
Third graders Taylor Bridges, right, and Rita Micklus demonstrate ball-in-the-cup, a game they fashioned as part of their pioneer unit for Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

Down the hall, students in Janis Whitney’s second-grade class have learned about the rainforest by observing plants firsthand in a classroom decorated to resemble the environment they’re studying.

“They were going right to town,” Whitney said of her students, who spent time in an in-class greenhouse recording their observations on clipboards.

The hands-on activities are common at Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School, which Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited May 25 as part of his statewide listening tour.

Rose M. Gaffney Elementary School serves 340 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, and offers students a number of chances to tailor their learning to their individual interests and abilities. The efforts appear to have paid off. Rose M. Gaffney has consistently made adequate yearly progress on Maine’s standardized tests in recent years under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That culture aimed at producing results starts early. Rose M. Gaffney began its pre-kindergarten program about a decade ago, according to Principal Mitchell Look. Today, it enrolls about 30 children.

“We saw kids coming into school who had no skills,” Look said of the program’s beginnings. “We started it. It’s the best thing we have going.”

Hands-on learning continues into the school’s upper levels.

Sixth graders, for example, regularly venture outside the classroom to explore the ecosystems they’re studying in science class.

“You talk about it,” Look said. “You might as well see it.”

And students who participate in the school’s Jobs for Maine’s Graduates REACH program recently finished a unit in which they used their laptops to research the cost of living in their area and communicate what they learned to a classroom in North Carolina via Skype. The North Carolina students did the same research for their community and shared it with the Rose M. Gaffney students, said REACH specialist Shannon Micklus.

Rose M. Gaffney is one of two schools in Washington County that offers a Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program for middle school-age students. The project-based program focuses on cultivating life skills and an early interest in careers.

For students who need an extra challenge, Rose M. Gaffney offers a gifted-and-talented program. Coordinator Joyce Fragale hopes the program will soon incorporate online learning opportunities for students who want to go beyond the traditional curriculum.

Advanced students at the school also can enroll in English and algebra classes at nearby Machias Memorial High School.

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