Building a Culture of Innovation at Nokomis High School

“If there is one thing we’ve gotten out of the pandemic, it’s that students don’t want to sit at a desk anymore and have someone talk at them,” said Nokomis High School Principal Mary Nadeau.

Starting last fall, Nadeau challenged her teachers to think outside the box when it comes to their lesson planning. She asked each of the teachers at Nokomis High School to do at least one project-based learning unit per year. Embracing the challenge head-on, many of those educators have not only created and executed interdisciplinary units and project-based lessons that are both outside of the figurative box but also take place, literally, outside of the school building.

“At our principal’s encouragement to think outside the box, a group of educators began thinking more deeply about outdoor education and specifically about utilizing the incredible landscape we have here at Nokomis,” said Nokomis High School English Teacher Anne Dailey. Dailey and her teaching partner revamped their 11th grade American Literature course which has provided the opportunity for about 45 students to have their English 11 experience completely outdoors.

“We read, write, and talk perched on logs or sitting on rocks around the edge of Nokomis pond,” said Dailey. Students are provided with a lot of time for independent reflection and small group work. They are building a month-by-month Almanac that has captured their individual experience of the landscape and their work.

“Only in the depths of the Maine winter did we stay inside, and even then, we took a walk each day,” added Dailey. “I think there was one day where we stood outside the doors for exactly one minute because it was 9° Fahrenheit and there was a serious wind.”

Pictured: Students working outside as part of Dailey’s classes.

It’s not just Dailey that implemented different learning techniques. Nadeau and Nokomis Regional High Instructional Coach and RSU 19 Curriculum Coordinator Kasie Giallombardo shared that 92% of teachers at the high school implemented project-based learning in some form. In Ashley Clark’s chemistry class, she typically gives out worksheets to learn unit conversions, but this year, she changed it up.

Clark believes that “returning to ‘normal’ since COVID has been a struggle for all,” and that making learning more relatable and ‘real’ for students is one way to lessen the struggle. So, instead of lectures and paper handouts in chemistry class, students made hot sauce. “Students used a small batch hot sauce recipe and harvested [their] own peppers from our school garden to make hot sauce. Students were able to use their knowledge of unit conversion to predict the amount of hot sauce we would make in the end and make sure there was enough for all of the students to try,” she said.

For Daniel Leaver, a 9th grade social studies teacher, interdisciplinary project-based learning is nothing new. “This is what I’m passionate about. This is what Nokomis has cultivated in me and a lot of my colleagues,” he said.

Leaver has been including interdisciplinary teaching methods into his curriculum for five years. It started, he says, in 2017, when he was co-teaching with another teacher, Jenine Olson, covering both social studies and English standards with at risk students. The kids loved hands-on learning and wanted to be active, so he invited in a guest speaker who was a grant writer. Students then wrote a grant to build a little library, working with the town, architects, and other experts. This type of learning, he says, was engaging and sparked inquiry because the students knew that they would be applying what the experts were teaching them.

Pictured: 9th grade students in an interdisciplinary unit centered on the evolving nature of communities – students are engaging with a hands-on “tool museum” that folks brought into the school (pre-pandemic).

While each teacher has chosen to implement interdisciplinary and project-based learning differently, they can all agree on one thing: its impact is visible and profound. Leaver says he has never seen students so engaged and interested. “It gets them away from their computers, asking questions, and engaging with people,” he shared.

In response to her outdoors English class, Dailey shared that “the group of students who selected this class are largely students who have felt constricted and uninspired by the ‘typical’ classroom experience, as well as students who simply love the outdoors. Their writing is different – it’s more personal, but it’s also just stronger.” Some of her students bring up small seasonal differences in their writings, differences that would probably be imperceptible from the inside of classroom walls.

“I have been amazed by my students’ ability to apply their knowledge of chemistry to their outside world, ask intriguing and thought-provoking questions about topics in chemistry that they come across in their day to day lives, and be able to further examine how chemistry can impact them in the future,” Clark added. She has really connected with her students this year because of her new teaching style and looks forward to continuing to do so in the future.

Overall, there have been huge shifts in student success rates at Nokomis High School. A far greater percentage of students successfully complete interdisciplinary units, and students have discovered passions and career paths as a result of their work. The students are not the only ones benefitted by this innovation, though.

“As far as my personal learning and process, developing these learning opportunities has led me to better understand performance indicators in other content areas. It has changed the way I interact with my peers. We have maintained a stance that focuses on what is possible. This continues to be a boundary that we push,” Olson shared.

Even so, changing the way their curriculum is taught was not easy for the teachers at Nokomis High School. “At first, [students] struggled to see the benefits that integrated assessments provide,” Olson said. However, once they were taught about what project-based learning is and how it impacts success, the going was easier. Now, students reflect on their learning and have more confidence in their depths of knowledge.

One thing that made the process easier, though, was support. “Our school and administration provide us time and support and resources,” Leaver said. Finding time to have quick meetings and having support from administration made all the difference in the teachers’ ability to implement these innovative techniques.

Pictured: Nokomis Middle and High School teachers doing a “Curriculum Gallery Walk” recently where they shared what teaching and learning looked like, got feedback, and worked together to make goals for next year.

Moving forward, Nokomis plans to expand the interdisciplinary courses they offer, with a whole slew of courses set to be available next year. One class will have a semester long unit called “The Good Life,” which will revolve around happiness. “It’s about being responsive to our kids, and we notice that we have all just lived through collective trauma. Just the pandemic alone, never mind all the craziness in our country,” Leaver said about the unit.

Students in the class will rotate between teachers, spending one month exploring how different cultures interpret happiness, one month exploring how artists and poets have interpreted happiness, and one month studying the biology of happiness. The course is geared toward 11th and 12th graders who are interested in learning about happiness from societal, literary, and scientific perspectives.

This isn’t the only example of a class set to be centered around interdisciplinary studies, either. Olson is working with a math teacher on a combined English/Geometry course called “The Elements of Crafting.” The class will look at different aspects of crafting, including the role of mathematics in craft and literature related to craft. There will also be an upcoming outdoor English/Chemistry class offered.

The teachers at Nokomis High School hope that this method of interdisciplinary and project-based teaching will continue to grow. “I hope that we continue to refine and revise what we have built while continuing to grow our individual and communal practice,” Olson said. Dailey says her ‘dream’ is for there to be a “multi-subject interdisciplinary track that students could select, in which they’d spend a whole day outside engaged in all core subjects, as well as any other subjects that teachers want to integrate.”

While Dailey’s ‘dream’ might sound like a long shot now, it might not be too far off, considering the support from school administration. Nadeau and Giallombardo believe that the way to get there is through a balance of giving teachers lots of support, creating opportunities to connect with other teachers, and finding something in common and creating something together, which Nokomis High School seems to be getting pretty good at.