Sharon Academy’s innovative newsletter gets middle schoolers thinking about hard-hitting topics like hunger and obesity.
By Kim J. Gifford
Fair Trade vs. Free Trade. How Advertising Influences Children. Do You Know How Much Corn Syrup You Eat. The Effect of High-Fructose Corn Syrup on People and the Environment.
These are just some of the informative headlines featured in the 40-page newsletter, Our Times, produced by the seventh and eighth graders at The Sharon Academy Middle School.
Our Times: Food and Hunger in the World is published every other year as part of the middle school’s integrated curriculum. Each student researches specific issues relating to food and hunger they find personally interesting. Subjects and styles are diverse, ranging from creative non-fiction pieces such as “The Life of An Organic Strawberry” to more hard-hitting topics such as “Poverty and Obesity.”
Depth Over Breadth
Andrew Lane, director of The Sharon Academy Middle School, explains that the school strives “toward differentiated instructions for students working at their particular ability level.” So if a student needs a slightly less complex topic, they may do so, or they may be assigned a partner or teacher’s assistant who will share credit. Other students may struggle with doing more in-depth research, so instead they may choose to do a review of a food documentary. Some students serve as editors for their peers.
One of the Sharon Academy’s principle goals is placing depth over breadth in its studies, and students are encouraged to delve deeply into a topic for Our Times. They work as many as 10 hours a week in class during a three-week period on writing, revision, research and peer revision.
Ben Rodis, class of 2021, feels that the hardest part of the whole process was deciding what topic to concentrate on. He settled on red meat as a cause of cancer but says making the decision was “a daunting task.”
“It was definitely a rewarding piece to write,” Rodis says. “It was very interesting to delve deeply into the causes of cancer.”
Topics often go beyond mere book learning to more experiential research. For example, when Olly Skeet Browning, class of 2020, was in middle school, he did a study on food stamps in America. As part of this project, he went on a food stamp diet, eating only what he could afford to buy with food stamps.
“It was really hard to balance nutrition versus cost because you didn’t have that much money to spend. It was eye opening to be able to see what living on food stamps is actually like,” Browning says.
Phoebe Quackenbos and her partner Zoe Bando researched the amount of corn in our diets. As part of their project, they challenged themselves to go a week without consuming any kind of corn products. “It was difficult because we were restricted from so many different things,” Quackenbos says.
“The hardest part was realizing how many different names corn has,” said Bando. “It’s not just straight corn, but it goes by different types of syrups and preservatives. There wasn’t a ton we could eat. The best part about it was realizing that there’s a lot of stuff in your food.”
Hands On Learning
In addition to publishing the newsletter, students, as part of their social studies curriculum, examine the cost of food in America in economic terms. They research hunger in Vermont, the United States and worldwide, while looking at organizations and institutions that address hunger. The science curriculum explores nutrition, digestion and photosynthesis while language arts has students read books such as Black Potatoes by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, addressing the Irish potato famine.
Sixteen years ago, the Sharon Academy visited Heifer International’s educational farm in Massachusetts. While there, someone mentioned their curriculum, which was modeled on the idea of being a journalist and investigating topics such as where bananas come from and what is the experience of someone working on a banana plantation. While Lane liked this idea, it was still based on the notion of writing an essay and turning it into a teacher.
“I said, “What would it be like if we went a step further and actually published it and made it into a newsletter because one of the things we believe in is authentic learning opportunities and authentic demonstrations of knowledge, where the risk taking is real,” he says. “There is now an incentive because you want this to be the best possible thing it can be…these are not fluff pieces.”
Linda Blakeman, a local parent at the time, worked at Dartmouth Printing and was able to arrange for the newsletter to be published there. Today they generate approximately 1,500 copies each printing. They distribute issues to local libraries, churches, grocery stories, farmers’ markets and doctors’ offices.
While Lane admits that he cannot directly point to the newsletter leading students to become journalists, farmers or advocates, he has seen a student go on to become a congressional page and others who admit to having a greater confidence and capacity in writing upon entering college.
“Kids realize that they have a voice and start owning that voice, so they can really feel like that can go be active in the world around them,” Lane says.
Kim J. Gifford is a writer, photographer/artist, avid dog lover and blogger. Her Bethel, Vt., home is always filled with nieces and nephews and her pugs. Find her at pugandpics.com