Impact of the Connections Program on Students, Teachers and School Culture

March, 2013

By Paul Lamoureux, Vice President Programs

On March 5th, donors and trustees visited the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester to learn how Connections has impacted the teachers and students who have participated in the program. The “Lilla G.” is located within the Circle of Promise, an area in Boston designated as in need of extra support by the Mayor and the Superintendent. Sixth grade math teacher Meghan McGoldrick and several of her students shared highlights of their learning experiences on Thompson Island.

Students, Teachers, Donors and Staff interact in Meghan McGoldrick’s classroom

Meghan kicked off the discussion by talking about the school’s introduction to Thompson Island through the one-day Harbor Connections program in 2010. At that time, her sixth grade students visited Spectacle Island on a cultural history lesson with Thompson Island instructors and National Park Rangers. The memorable expedition followed preparatory classroom sessions about the Boston Harbor Islands National Park, chart making and interactive math lessons that attempted to determine how long it would take to get to Spectacle on the ferry (based upon distance, time and speed).

Math teacher Meghan McGoldrick (center) discussing the benefits of the Thompson Island experience

Meghan’s enthusiasm inspired other teachers within her school to participate in Harbor Connections trips as well. Meghan then began building the expedition into her 2011 curriculum to extend the impact of the classroom and field-based lessons.

It was at this point, based upon the clear commitment to Harbor Connections from both teachers and school administration, that Thompson Island invited the school to join the coveted Environmental Connections program. Meghan was effusive as she described her elation at the selection of her 6th graders to come to Thompson Island for 3 days and 2 nights in the spring of 2012. She immediately began coordinating efforts with Thompson Island staff and other Lilla G. teachers, particularly her 6th grade humanities teacher partner, Jessica Lider.

Environmental Connections Students exploring the Salt Marsh on Thompson Island

In preparation for the expedition, the teachers integrated reading, science and math curriculum into their lessons that would be directly relevant to their time on Thompson Island. This was then followed up by classroom visits from Thompson Island and National Park staff with additional relevant preparatory lessons, to insure an impactful and memorable 3 days and 2 nights on Thompson Island. Meghan was also quick to point out that the myriad benefits of participating in Environmental Connections included social-emotional skills, as well as academics.

Respect, communication and collaboration were the “order of the day” on Thompson Island and reinforced school values according to Meghan. Visible outside of Meghan’s classroom were the five team flags created by the students on Thompson Island during the 6th graders spring expedition. Each flag colorfully depicted all of the positive behaviors and values that group members wanted in their crew. Also listed were behaviors that group members did not want in their crew, such as put-downs, violence, and disrespect. Group members then each signed their flags as they would a contract, indicative of their intent to embody its positive values. This concept of a full “value contract” helped guide the students during their time on Thompson Island. Now, however, these values returned to the school and were observed each day as everyone gathered in the lobby for morning meeting. These values became part of the inspiration for the newly developed Lilla G. Academy Creed! According to Meghan, the Thompson Island experience has clearly had a positive impact on school culture.

Lilla G. Frederick crew (Los Lobos) with their team value flag (now hung in the Academy Lobby!)

After Meghan finished dazzling the guests, the students each relayed their most memorable experiences from the island expedition, accompanied by island photos projected onto the classroom screen. The students were articulate, passionate and humorous. Highlights included their joy for exploring and identifying creatures in the salt marsh; reconstructing skeletons of small mammals from Owl pellets; working with peers and challenging themselves on the island’s ropes courses; feeling like they were in college spending overnights in dorms; learning map skills and orienting themselves throughout the island; or simply being immersed in nature in beaches, meadows and forests. Oh, and of course, they had to gush over “how awesome the food is on Thompson Island!”

Environmental Connections students explore the coastal ecosystems under the watch of a National Park Ranger

After a question and answer session, students became ambassadors and led tours of the fairly new and impressive school complex.

Lilla G. Frederick 7th grade students, who were the highlight of the school visit, accompany a generous donor

Hosting the Thompson Island board of trustees meeting in Meghan’s classroom was the perfect way to end the day, and further reinforced the importance of our partnership with Boston schools in need of community support. Meghan and Jessica reiterated the importance of the Connections program to their school, to them personally as “holistic educators” and most importantly to the students they so passionately serve. Once again, the teachers discussed what a meaningful program Environmental Connections is and the benefits to academics and social-emotional learning, as well as to school culture. They explained that now, after their first double-overnight experience on the island, they have woven preparatory lessons based upon the forthcoming spring expedition even more tightly into their classroom lessons in humanities, math and science. But, perhaps even more importantly, they saw the benefits of the program in opening students up to a world of possibilities, whether as a scientist or as someone who just wants more out of themselves and out of life. According to the teachers, a trip to Thompson Island in the Connections program is almost magical in the way that it stimulates a student’s heart, mind and body.

Lilla G. Frederick 6th grade Students on their last day on Thompson Island last spring

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