Superintendent's Notebook: Tackling real-world problems makes learning come alive

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When an eighth-grader sends you a hand-written letter asking you to donate blood, how can you refuse? Lyman Moore Middle School students used that brilliant strategy to recruit donors for a blood drive on Feb. 7.

Moore’s eighth grade has spent the past several weeks learning about blood through a unit that combined math, science, social studies, health and other subjects. Students graphed blood types, studied blood chemistry, practiced first-aid skills and investigated the history of the American Red Cross. Art classes made posters for the blood drive, and language arts classes wrote those very persuasive letters. Students planned the blood drive as the culmination of the unit.

The Moore blood drive is just one example of the ways that Portland’s three public middle schools – King, Lincoln and Moore – are integrating academic subjects into projects that make a difference in our community. That’s a win-win proposition. Students become much more engaged in their school work when it connects to the real world, and their efforts have an impact on people’s lives.

The middle-school students are learning about big problems, such as hunger and sustainability. They are using their creativity to come up with solutions. Some of their work has prompted changes in our schools, while other projects have an impact throughout the city and even around the globe.

King Middle School eighth-graders just finished a learning expedition about energy titled “reVOLT.” They designed devices that solve modern-day energy needs in unique ways by harnessing natural energy. Their creations include solar-powered water purifiers, rechargeable house lighting and wind-powered cell-phone chargers.

Seventh-graders involved in another recent King learning expedition worked with city staff and the U.S. Forest Service to catalog trees in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood. They assessed locations for future tree plantings and presented their findings to the city.

At Lincoln Middle School, seventh-graders are in the second year of a project about hunger. They began by analyzing how the world population’s increase affects access to resources. They then delved into the problem of hunger in Maine. After learning that a quarter of Maine children sometimes go hungry, they created public service announcements about problems contributing to the lack of food.

A Lincoln eighth-grade Spanish class spent the past two years corresponding with a Peace Corp volunteer who was working at a school in Paraguay. The Lincoln students learned that the school needed children’s books for its youngest students, and they decided to write original stories in Spanish for the Paraguayan children.

Portland’s middle schools have won acclaim for several of the projects cited above. The “PBS Newshour” recently featured King’s reVOLT expedition on its national broadcast. Lincoln is being featured on WCSH’s “Schools that Shine” this month for the Paraguay book project. And the American Red Cross has used the Moore blood drive unit as a national model.

Moore eighth-graders sent hundreds of letters to family members, neighbors, teachers and administrators asking them to participate in the blood drive. Students volunteered throughout the afternoon, greeting donors and providing them with drinks and snacks. A monitor in the recovery area showed students’ research from their blood unit. The drive collected 128 units of blood for the American Red Cross, setting a school record.

Students give such projects rave reviews because they see how they can put their learning to use to make a difference. “We can do something important and serious at a young age,” said a Moore student who worked on the blood drive.

That’s a powerful lesson, indeed.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at Read his blog at