Great Barrington — It’s a phenomenon as perennial as the end of the school year itself: restless students and their deadline-driven teachers slog through the waning days of June while boredom inevitably ensues. In public schools across the county, it is a slow and often formulaic crawl toward the 180th day of school. For middle-schoolers in Great Barrington, the aforementioned scenario just might be a thing of the past. At Monument Valley Regional Middle School an innovative end-of-year program is being piloted, one that aims to harness kids’ natural energy while directing it toward a real purpose. As a result, the District’s 120 8th graders are ending the year with energy that stands not only to satiate their own curiosity but also to benefit the community at large.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to connect to our community in a way that feels purposeful and meaningful,” said Fred Erickson of Year End Studies — YES for short — a mere hours into the first of the middle school’s inaugural three-day project. Erickson, who has taught in the District for 18 years, has always been a “teach to the end” kind of guy — precisely the type of teacher for whom end-of-year frustration can run high. But sometimes things get logistically tricky: If grades are due five days before the end of school, what is there to do in the meantime save for watching movies? Erickson ultimately took the initiative to mitigate this frustration through creative problem solving; as to whether or not there is a solution to this dilemma, Erickson’s reply is a resounding, YES!
The YES Program — begun three years ago in Spartanburg, South Carolina — was McCracken Middle School’s answer to the end-of-the-year doldrums. Their approach revolved around creating student-centered, teacher designed, and interest-based courses that placed emphasis on educating the whole child. Erickson’s research led him to McCracken, as well as a school in Texas, where YES was implemented in the curriculum.He consulted with both principals who shared how their respective missions were complemented by the introduction of YES!, and he enthusiastically pitched the idea to his 8th grade team. While the conversation began last June, things really got going in September when Erickson and colleagues began cobbling together a diverse range of non-traditional, project-based experiences designed to apply and expand what students have learned during the school year. This week, the three-day program that aims to connect students to their local communities through service is in full swing;
“The whole team is an amazing group of educators [who] decided to make the end of the 8th grade experience meaningful,” said MVRMS principal Ben Doren. As a result of these efforts, students were presented with a wide variety of options, ranging from staying on campus and engaging with local media professionals to traveling off-site to volunteer at a nonprofit; of the 12 originally proposed ideas, 10 had enough interest to run. Groups of students were disseminated throughout Berkshire County with destinations including Gideon’s Garden at Taft Farms; the Berkshire Humane Society in Pittsfield; and Community Health Programs. Other students participated in lake cleanup and stream assessment with the Housatonic Valley Association; trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail; and invasive species removal with Greenagers. Still others pursued babysitting certification at Berkshire South and used the Billion Graves app to navigate historic cemeteries in town.
Erickson was at the helm of a small group who chose to explore “The Power of the Media.” He and eight students traveled to Pittsfield where they toured the Berkshire Eagle with editor Kevin Moran. After enjoying visits from local editors Anastasia Stanmeyer (Berkshire Magazine) and David Scribner (The Berkshire Edge), they were brimming with questions ranging from how to remain objective as a journalist to how stories are turned around so quickly. Each student was in the beginning phase of exploring people or topics in their community that they feel need more exposure(look for those stories online a www.theberkshireedge.com at a later date). Their reactions to YES were overwhelmingly positive: “I think it’s a good way to end the year — better than sitting around doing nothing,” said David Flynn who was working on a profile of his father, MMRHS guidance counselor Sean Flynn. “It’s kind of relaxing…we’re done with our [school] work and I can focus on something I chose,” he added. Paige Lussier, accustomed to either watching a bunch of movies or taking tests up until the last minute, took an interesting approach: “This is a good way to meet us in the middle — continue working but make it interesting,” she said during a break from her research on Railroad Street Youth Project.
Jackson Potoski contributed an interesting perspective: “It’s an English experience taught by a math teacher [who is] not trained [in writing] but showing us a different way.” Potoski was writing about his grandmother, a former nurse at CHP, who since her retirement has traveled on medical missions to the Dominican Republic.
Topping a small list of challenges was funding which, for MVRMS, ultimately came in the guise of a grant from the Berkshire Hills Fund for Excellence. “We’ve had to be creative,” said Erickson of getting out into the community in light of the face that most grants will not cover transportation costs. This did not hinder teachers and administrators. In fact, Doren was a huge champion of the endeavor: “How can we help kids find their way back to community while having fun in the process?” was his attitude. Which means he pulled strings to ensure that each and every one of the “really worthy and engaging projects” that had student interest was implemented. “It’s been exciting enough that if things continue to go well [YES] will continue,” said Erickson — a sentiment echoed by Doren who went on the record saying the District was looking to expand YES to include the entire 7th and 8th grade next year. And why not? It’s a hands-on opportunity to be connected, one revolving around community service projects, and to quote Sarah Wohl, “we’re still winding down, but doing something in the community. [We’re] working, but not bored; it’s fun and creative. I think it’s really cool!”