‘Connections Classes’ Making Headway at Bath Middle School

Bike Repair Connections Class

A special team of educators has been working quietly and efficiently behind the scenes at Bath Middle School (BMS) in RSU 1 this year, on a new way of thinking, working, and collaborating – a recipe for innovative change. This year, teachers and students alike have had the opportunity to participate in something called, “Connections Classes” taking them out of their regular routine to try something new and rewarding.

As part of RREV, the Reimagining Responsive Education Ventures initiative of the Maine Department of Education, Bath Middle School was awarded funds to implement a pilot program that gives teachers time to plan and collaborate on interdisciplinary, project-based lessons, and gives students a chance to learn something completely new, something they are interested in, and with a whole different set of classmates and teachers.

As described in their original pilot plan, BMS had a goal of creating, “structures and spaces for every member of the BMS community to feel value and connection.”

In the planning process, BMS utilized design thinking to identify four key things they needed to do to help them achieve their goal. First, they revised the school schedule to facilitate shared planning time for BMS teachers, during this time teachers developed collaborative interdisciplinary classes based on teachers’ passions. Secondly, they purchased a 15-passenger van to allow small groups of students to go on field trips to explore the community and make connections outside the school. The third, and very important key to their mission was hiring an instructional coach to coordinate this new effort.

This school year, every single student at BMS participates in Connections Classes imagined by their teachers! Each Wednesday, Connections Classes are a chance for students to learn a new skill – everything from origami to hallway running, bike repair, cooking, nail art, and everything in between. Classes are 45 minutes long and students stick with one topic for a period of 8-10 weeks, allowing them to really dig in and learn something new.

“Permission to run in the hallways,” said BMS Principal Brandon Ward, with a smile, as he describes the hallway running connections class. The topics are selected and planned out by teams of teachers who have a passion for the topic, and the students get to choose which class they want to attend.

The school van has been an enormous success as well. Affectionately called the Van Gough or Vanna White, the van has gone on 67 trips (and counting) so far including a student-planned ski trip. Ward remarked that having the van right there in the parking lot has really made smaller field trips so much more accessible to teachers and students, which is evident in the amount it gets used.

Looking back at all they have accomplished so far, the team behind all of this, which includes Principal Ward, Instructional Coach Micah Depper, a former Science teacher at BMS, and RSU 1 Assistant Superintendent Katie Joseph who began the process, are excited, encouraged, and hopeful about the positive shift that has begun to take place at BMS. 

Depper, who in addition to coordinating the RREV Pilot, also facilitates the Rock Band Connections Class, is grateful for the time and space to coordinate an effort he truly feels passionate about. He pays tribute to its success thus far with the fact that he has a close working relationship with both Principal Ward and Assistant Superintendent Joseph.

Ward remarks that while the work to rearrange the school schedule is tricky, as is prioritizing his time as a busy building Principal to give this effort time and attention, it pays off ten-fold as he sees the smiles on the faces of both students and teachers during connections classes and beyond.

The BMS RREV team is not only close and efficient at working together, but they are also grateful for their extended team, so to speak. Other close working colleagues at BMS whom they know they can lean on for a helping hand, as both a thought partner but also as someone who can step in when extra hands are needed. 

As they enter the second semester of the school year and begin to collect feedback, there is both a lot to be thankful for as well as ideas to expand and refine. Anecdotally, Ward has noticed that during the Connections Class period, there is significantly less disruptive behavior from students and the outpouring of positive responses from both students and teachers has been encouraging. The team feels that it has a lot to do with the fact that students aren’t choosing Connections Classes based on what their friends are doing. They choose what they like, and they are having fun doing it.

Both Ward and Depper think that the real success story with Connections Classes is that kids who would most likely take an opportunity like this to wander the halls at any given time, can be found fully engaged in a class they are truly enjoying, and the evidence is apparent.

Based on more formal feedback the team sought through surveys to teachers and students, more than 80% of respondents had positive feedback about the experience. Without ignoring the other 20%, they know there is always room for improvement and as is often a struggle in any school setting, capacity and prioritizing tasks remain a challenge.

Looking to the future, the team hopes to sustain and refine their efforts by gathering additional feedback and incorporating more student input on new Connections class topics through student focus groups. They also hope to explore ways to incorporate learning standards and continue to work with their staff on ensuring there is continued value and connection through these efforts.

“We’ve done some really fantastic things this year and it feels really good,” added Ward.

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.  

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 hope to continue the momentum to change students’ lives through innovative and responsive educational programs.