In late October, 17 Bowdoin teaching minors boarded a ferry in Rockland to cross Penobscot Bay to spend 24 hours on Vinalhaven, a small Maine island 12 miles off the coast. The students were visiting the island’s K-12 school as part of their studies on how to incorporate local culture and community into classroom lessons.
Maine is home to many unique communities, including its handful of island communities, many of which are dependent on the fishing industry. Some of the larger islands with year-round residents maintain K-12 or K-8 schools. These are often tiny, with well under 100 students. The K-12 school in Vinalhaven, which has a year-round population of 1,200, is the largest island school in Maine, with 200 students.
While conducting research on Vinalhaven in the late 1990s, Associate Professor of Education Nancy Jennings realized that these island schools could offer Bowdoin education students the valuable lesson of seeing how island educators teach subjects that both reflect and enhance their communities. As aspiring teachers, they will one day be crafting curricula with the same objective.
Six years ago, Bowdoin’s education department formalized a link with island schools through its Island Schools Project, which works as a cross-cultural exchange. Bowdoin teaching minors spend a night and a day on an island. Then, the island’s high school students come to Bowdoin for an overnight visit.
“It helps [Bowdoin students] think about how communities shape schools,” Jennings said, “as well as gives them additional experience learning about a new community. How do you look at a community that is unfamiliar without romanticizing it or seeing it as deficient?”
During their visit to the island, Bowdoin students get the chance to think more deeply about how schools utilize their resources and how they capitalize on place. Island teachers might structure a classroom discussion around fishing regulations, policies and economics, or teach celestial navigation. Through meetings with teachers and administrators, and observing and participating in classes, students explore how a teacher might design curriculum and assign homework for students who, when they’re not in school, are often working.
Along with getting to know school staff, the students also get a chance to interact with community members by sharing a potluck dinner together, visiting the island’s lobster buying station and talking with local business people.
Each year, a Bowdoin student is hired by the McKeen Center for the Common Good to serve as an ambassador between Bowdoin and the island community and to help set up the exchanges. Currently Caroline Logan ’14 is filling this position. The Curtin-Nowers Family Endowment for Island Schools provides funding for the project.
Both Bowdoin and the island communities benefit from the Island Schools Project, Jennings said. Over the years, Bowdoin has partnered with schools on North Haven (with 62 K-12 students) and Deer Isle/Stonington (110 high school students), as well as Vinalhaven, all of which struggle with college aspirations and completion. Island kids who grow up lobstering with family members, and who will one day most likely fish for a living, can be dubious about the value of a high school diploma, let alone a college diploma. “Lobstering is incredibly lucrative,” Jennings said. “But it’s important they have a back-up plan.”
When the island students visit Bowdoin, they sleep over in the dorms, attend classes and eat in the dining halls. According to Sarah Chingos, the program placement and outreach coordinator for the eduction department, this exposure is designed to help them aspire to a college education, perhaps even one at Bowdoin. “Part of the fun of coordinating this experience is that it leaves a deeper impression than a one-hour campus tour,” she said.
Logan said she’s overheard some island kids, before they visit the campus, dismissing college as just a four-year extension of high school. “But then they come to Bowdoin, they see how independent the students are, they see us going to club meetings, singing for acapella groups, climbing on weekends with the outing club,” she said. “After they leave here, they all say they want to go to Bowdoin.”
These cross-cultural immersions have altered the course of some students’ lives. Michael Felton ’00 visited Vinalhaven in 1999 with Jennings. After he graduated, he took a job teaching on Vinalhaven, eventually becoming the school leader. (Felton is now the associate director of residential education at Bowdoin.) Sarah Wilson ’17 first visited Bowdoin in 2010 through the Island Schools Project when she was a high school sophomore on Deer Isle. She is now a first-year student at Bowdoin. Her class had a particularly high number of students who enrolled in college, which she thinks is an outcome of the experience they had at Bowdoin. “[The project] provided an opportunity for my whole class, many of whom have parents who never attended college and never even considered attending themselves, to get a taste of what college is like,” she said. “Our visit allowed us to picture ourselves at a college.”