Making Community Connections

Six stories of how Catlin Gabel students identify issues and find ways to make a difference

By Ken DuBois

Beginning School: The Golden Box

Beginning School students sit down with art supplies every month to create pieces that they hope will bring cheer to someone in need in their community. They’re creating cards for patients at Hopewell House, a hospice facility in Portland, and continuing a longstanding Catlin Gabel tradition; Beehive students have been creating art for residents at the house for over 20 years. It’s one way young students are learning to think beyond themselves, expand their world view, and engage in sympathetic understanding—the developmental stage in which children learn to consider the needs of others, including people they’ve never met. They place their cards in the ceremonial Golden Box with the knowledge that their art will be delivered (by a parent volunteer) to people at the hospice. Teachers don’t provide details about the circumstances of patients or the specifics of hospice care, but do ask students to think of the project as sharing love with “very sick people, and with their families and caretakers.” The Golden Box project teaches responsible action, but it’s also a manifestation of a larger objective in the Beehive: helping children build social-emotional skills. In terms of developing empathy, they are asked to consider how others might feel, and how they can use their skills and knowledge to help them. The Beginning School team is even considering ways to expand the learning experience in future years by providing students with opportunities to interact directly with card recipients in appropriate settings, such as with seniors at a nearby residential home. “It’s about helping them understand that we are part of a larger community and that you can have an impact on those people,” says Beginning School teacher Leondra Brackett. “I do think that it is making a small difference in people’s days.”

Lower School: Nature Trail

In the wooded west end of campus, hidden among dense foliage and trees, Lower School students are carrying out a community service project that will benefit our school and the surrounding neighborhood for years to come. They’re working with school neighbors to reverse the decline of a fragile ecosystem, and develop a nature trail in a narrow stretch of woods–the last natural barrier between residential development and the St. Vincent Medical Center campus. To contribute to the effort, the entire Lower School got involved in ivy-pulling as an Earth Day service project in spring 2017, and a smaller group has continued the work on a weekly basis. But the project goes far beyond the removal of invasive species. Plans are underway for students to plant new foliage and trees that will crowd out invasives; create vernal pools that back up to encourage invertebrates; design and construct bridges, kiosks, and birdhouses; and meet with neighbors to learn about why this project might be meaningful to them. “It’s experiential learning in action,” says woodshop teacher Ric Fry, who has organized the effort. “We’re doing things that benefit the community, and they’re learning about real life issues. Especially as the project progresses, it cycles back to projects they’re doing in class.” Students are seeing how their work in the woods relates to other areas of interest–biology, hydrology, geology, physics, and engineering, for example–and making meaningful connections with longtime residents, with whom they’re working side-by-side. “It’s a chance to start building really interesting connections,” says Ric, “between something we want, something they want, and this natural resource, and what that means to every one of us.”

Lower School: Veteran’s Day Letter Writing Campaign

Hundreds of veterans in the Portland VA Hospital, and veterans on active duty around the world, received a special Veteran’s Day message this year: a letter from a Catlin Gabel Lower School student. Every child in the Lower School—all 205 students in grades 1-5—reached out to veterans with messages that were forwarded through Operation Gratitude. Some examples: Dear Veteran, Thank-you for serving our country in war. Wishing you luck. You’re awesome. Smiles and hugs, from Ellery (grade 3) Dear Veteran, We truly appreciate you for protecting our homes, our families, and our hearts. You protect our freedom, and our love for the USA. Thank-you for changing and protecting the world for my generation and many more. Sincerely, Erik (grade 4) It was the first year for letter writing, but awareness of the service and sacrifice of veterans has been part of the Lower School experience for several years. In the weeks leading up to Veterans Day each November, a symbolic “White Table” is on display in the front hallway, honoring all veterans, and especially those missing in action or held prisoner of war (the table is set for one person, with an empty chair leaned against it to symbolize missing soldiers). Lower School students have another opportunity to act responsibly at this time of year, and many choose to participate: through Operation Gratitude, they donate their Halloween candy to service men and women.

Middle School: Harvesting Responsibly

In the Middle School Garden, sixth graders are studying the nature of planting and harvest cycles, and in the process increasing their understanding about food issues that affect communities around the world. It’s an empathy-building project that helps students connect with others around the most basic human need: healthy food, and sustainable practices, to support communities everywhere. Building on that central concept—and the educational possibilities of a hands-in-the-dirt experience—teachers in the Middle School came together to incorporate dozens of lessons from multiple disciplines for the “Harvest Festival” unit. Math teacher Michele Hoang had her students calculate the area of the raised beds and the volume of compost needed to fill them; science teacher Larry Hurst tasked his students with measuring the drainage rates of clay, silt, and sand to determine the best type of soil for growing vegetables; Carter Latendresse, language arts teacher and garden coordinator, had his students study seed-saving and the life cycle of seeds; and students in Jeff Smith’s social studies class learned about the rise of civilizations after hunter-gatherers began domesticating plants and animals. It all came together at the harvest, when students prepared foods from the crops they grew and set aside seeds and kernels for next year’s planting. Students harvested red bell peppers from their aquaponics station, ground corn to make cornbread and tortillas, baked delicata squash in the garden cob oven, and harvested lettuce and kale toppings for quesadillas.

Upper School: Project Prelude

While writing a sophomore English essay about community engagement, Isabelle Zheng ’18 decided to do more than just write about it: she teamed up with Cammie Lee ’18 and formed an education program that has changed the lives of hundreds of Portland-area children. Through their non-profit, Project Prelude, they’re providing free music instruction to middle schoolers who otherwise might never have the chance to pick up an instrument. “Playing music was growing increasingly inaccessible,” says Isabelle, a dedicated flutist. “Private lessons and instruments can cost thousands of dollars a year.” Cammie, a violinist since age four, adds, “I was struck by how much and how often music programs were getting cut. It is amazing to me how little music is valued in the education system.” Today, three public schools—McKinley Elementary, Aloha-Huber Park, and Raleigh Hills K-8—have free music programs run by Isabelle (as Executive Director) and Cammie (as Music Director), along with dozens of volunteers. Project Prelude collects and distributes used instruments as well, so every part of the experience is cost-free. This year, 140 students are engaged in the program, which includes individual instruction, group lessons, and opportunities to perform for concert audiences. “Many of our students have expressed that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument,” Isabelle says.“It is a joy to bring that opportunity to them.”