A Year of Success and Innovation: Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures at MSAD 17

kids in raincoats outside

The first round of RREV (Rethinking Responsive Education Ventures) Awardees were announced in August of 2021. RREV is an initiative of the Maine Department of Education, funded by the Education Stabilization Funds through the US Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models, that bolsters Maine educators’ innovative efforts to support their students with agile, effective, and resilient learning experiences that improve learning outcomes for all students. Now, after a year of experience and development, the Department of Education would like to thank the awardees for their dedication to innovative education and highlight their achievements that have resulted from the RREV contracts over the past year. Continue reading to learn more about the ways in which the Brewer School Department has used their RREV funding this past year.

After noticing students’ need for extra academic and social health assistance over the past few years, Agnes Gray Elementary School in MSAD 17 knew they needed to offer students improved help on their paths to success. For them, the solution was clear: taking the kids outside. When they began their RREV journey in August of 2021, educators at Agnes Gray aspired to hire an Outdoor Learning Coordinator to work regularly with students and teachers to provide meaningful outdoor learning experiences and to build a fully furnished yurt to provide shelter for outdoor learning in inclement weather. Now, a year later, they have fostered a culture of encouragement and are proud to say that every single classroom has gotten outside and used the outside environment for learning regularly.

Outdoor Learning Coordinator Sarah Timm says this past year, she has had to rely on her teamwork skills to build an outdoor curriculum for students. A lot of the outcome, she says, relies on teachers comfort level with the outdoors. While some teachers were eager to get outside, others were more hesitant, and that’s okay, Timm says. She believes that in order for this pilot to work, educators have to be allowed to grow at their own pace and they need to know that “any teacher can go outside at any time.” What’s important is not how much time they are spending outside, but rather how they are using their time outside: the outdoor learning is successful because of the engaging activities that incorporate the environment surrounding students, not just their location outside the school building.

By working with teachers at their comfort level, Timm has been able to create outdoor units for every grade, allowing all students to experience outdoor learning. A point she emphasizes is that outdoor learning isn’t just for science. First graders took their social studies units outside and fifth graders took their reading outside. Students from all grades experienced movement breaks as well, which are short trips outside designed to get students moving while they learn. One group of first graders even collected acorns on a movement break, which a retired teacher then turned into flour which she then used to bake muffins for them. Another group pretended to be the earth and the sun and explain why seasons happen and why days are shorter in the winter.

It’s not just movement breaks that allowed kids to get a break from the classroom, though. Many classes taught entire units outside. These units are specially designed to create authentic learning by using the outdoor environment to make the learning more relevant. The kindergarteners spent time identifying birds and building shelters in the woods. Second graders were able to learn most of their life science units outside, along with some social studies, even constructing their own Native American Museum after researching and recreating existing artifacts. Other students and parents then had the chance to visit the second graders’ museum, which was constructed in the school’s post and beam cabin. In third grade, students took on an engineering unit. They spent time outside during the winter learning how to build bridges with snow and learning about force through pulling each other on sleds. They also got to incorporate some meteorology into their studies, learning which kinds of snow stick best to make bridges. In fourth grade, students took on service-learning projects, investigating the old stonewalls surrounding their campus and mapping out new trails through the woods. For students in fifth and sixth grade, most of their science courses were completed outside, learning about and visualizing the water cycle. They also covered history lessons outside, creating, growing, and defending their own ancient civilizations in the woods.

Timm believes, “taking kids outside isn’t just cute and it doesn’t just feel right – it is right.” Since starting this outdoor program, she says, they have seen an impact on students’ engagement and interest. They are more focused, and they are eager to learn because their learning is authentic, curated, and engaging. “This is what we did when we were in school,” Agnes Gray Principal, Catherine Bickford, says, choosing to view this introduction to the outdoors as a return to teaching methods that have been abandoned in recent years. Bickford believes they are simply learning and reinventing from past mistakes, not creating entirely new ideas, and thinks that is key to sharing this innovation with other schools.

Over the course of the next year, Timm is excited to develop new outdoor units for Agnes Gray educators to incorporate into curriculum and bring their students outside for even more authentic learning. Timm and Bickford also hope to “take the show on the road” by expanding the programming to other elementary schools in the district. They are looking to create a menu of units to take to educators so that they are aware of the many options available to them for taking students outside, no matter their comfort level. They also hope to show educators in their district, and across the state, that it does not take much to bring learning outside, especially if they collaborate in the ways that Timm and Bickford aspire to.

Martin Mackey, the former RREV Project Director who tragically passed away in April of this year, embodied the RREV spirit: to think and act boldly to meet the needs of students. His passion was to “change lives.” As such, he challenged each and every RREV participant to do just that as they designed pilot ideas that would ultimately have a lasting systemic impact on students.  After 18 months of leading RREV, Martin’s passion had been passed on to almost 200 educators who had participated in innovation professional development. From those educators, 27 Pilot ideas were brought to fruition and have received over $5.7 million in RREV awards. Through their pilot ideas, these educators have pledged to commit themselves to innovation.

The Maine DOE encourages all schools and districts across the State of Maine to learn more about these innovative educators and their RREV pilots through the RREV website and the online RREV collaborative platform known as EnGiNE. It is through EnGiNE that we all hope to continue the Martin Momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.