Superintendent's Notebook: From civil rights to plate tectonics: A week in the life of Portland’s schools

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Learning takes place in hundreds of ways each day in the classrooms of the Portland Public Schools. Sometimes, it’s loud and exuberant. Other times, children quietly calculate equations, sketch a still life, edit an essay.

Our teachers create the conditions for learning and nudge it along. Thanks to their efforts, students fall in love with books. They master a new language, explore the natural world, discover their own talents and how they can make a difference.

Let’s peek into a few Portland classrooms to see what was happening on a week in early December. I hope this sampling gives you an idea of the extraordinary things that occur on a daily basis in our schools.

We’ll start at Hall Elementary School. Balls were flying in Valerie Vassar’s fifth-grade classroom as part of an experiment on energy and force.

Students fitted the plunger of a spring scale to the end of a ramp. They rolled three different-sized steel balls down the ramp, varying the starting point. Students measured the force of the balls as they collided with the spring scale and recorded the data in their science notebooks. They used the results to answer the question, “How much force can a rolling ball apply during a collision?”

At Moore Middle School, sixth-graders in David Hilton’s social studies class are studying the ancient world. They began working in teams to research one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They will create an art piece depicting their wonder, then try to persuade a panel of professionals why it is the best.

Students in Victoria Stubbs’ music class at Portland Arts and Technology High School created a composition using their first names as their guide. They assigned a musical note, or pitch, to each letter of the name. Using only those pitches, they composed eight or more measures of a melody. They then worked in small groups to combine the melodies into longer compositions.

At Deering High School, students in Dan LeGage’s ninth-grade earth science class studied movements of the earth’s plates. They worked in groups to create videos, audio podcasts and other products describing the theory of plate tectonics.

The PATHS landscapes and gardens class learned how to create professional floral bows. They made holiday door swags and centerpieces for a fundraising sale at the school. “We discussed how to price our products for the sale,” said Jill Irving, the teacher.

King Middle School seventh-graders interviewed local residents about their experiences during the civil rights movement. A Portland woman who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., in the 1950s told King students about befriending the only African-American student in her high school.

The students recorded the interview on their laptop computers, then discussed what they felt was the central idea of the story, said Karen MacDonald, a King language arts teacher. Their written account will be included in a volume of stories about Portland citizens who completed “small acts of courage” during the civil rights movement. It also will become part of the African American Collection of Maine, housed at the University of Southern Maine’s library.

There are hundreds of examples of great teaching going on in Portland’s schools. I hope this gives you a feel for the creativity of our teachers.

Happy new year to you and your family.

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at