Classroom of the Week | E3 Academy gets personal in North Adams

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NORTH ADAMS — If you ask the students of the E3 Academy about their best work, they won't just tell you about it — they can show you, too.

Last week, they launched a book, "The City Before You: E3 Sees Behind the Scenes," a compilation of stories collected from their interviews with 16 longtime residents of the city. They shared it both with the members of the Mary Spitzer Center of the North Adams Council on Aging and with a live audience on Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They also gave copies to the North Adams Library and the North Adams Historical Society.

"I don't think you can find a book more authentic or more homegrown," said E3 Academy student Matt Bess.

This week they finished science research posters about topics ranging from water purification to new videos designed to stimulate autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. Back in the fall, they visited Berkshire County farms and community garden projects, then wrote a song about nutrition, made snacks and a video with children from Greylock Elementary School. Students also have internships. Jason Bunt said he loves working at a local garage, while Tiara Myer is working with young children at Colegrove Park Elementary School.

"We do things that make you say, 'Wow, I did that.' I mean, we made a book. I went to a farm, I worked on a farm, I pet a cow. You don't do that in a regular school," E3 Academy student Rayvin West said.

The E3 Academy doesn't follow a lot of the traditional classroom constructs such as where desks are in rows and students spend their days listening to a teacher talking at the head of the classroom. The "E3" part of the program's name stands for "Effort, Employability and Essential" skills and knowledge. But it's all about a fourth "E," building a strong sense of efficacy.

E3 Academy itself is a branch of Drury High School designed to give students at risk of leaving school reasons to stay, like more personalized instruction and support and an academic curriculum rooted in community-based service learning projects and internships. Students who complete the program graduate with a Drury High School diploma.

So far, it seems to be working. West, for example, said she used to chronically stay home from school due to boredom.

"This year, I've only missed three days," she said.

Josh Serrano said he once missed 65 out of the 180 days of required attendance in a school year. Now, he doesn't want to miss out. Right now, he's looking forward to developing some product prototypes for an upcoming unit on business and entrepreneurship. "I'm excited," he said.

These opportunities combining academic learning and community activities are orchestrated by a team of three educators: Abby Reifsnyder, a school counselor; humanities teacher Karen Bedard; and Shelley O'Dowd, who coordinates curriculum for the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But instead of teaching these subjects separately, the teachers work together to draw connections to each others' lessons, and to make sure that each project connects to multiple learning competencies and state standards.

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What that means for the students is that they can't just paste pictures to a poster board or write a paper and call it a day. In addition to independent study, they have to collaborate with each other to see a project through.

With the science projects, the whole class became test subjects or consultants for one another. When Bess, for example missed a day of class and had to rush to finish his poster, which was going to be presented to an audience at the Spitzer Center, classmate Tyler Caron was quick to lend a hand.

"I saw he needed help, so we got it done," Caron said.

"Here, everyone's communicating together and everyone's willing to help each other, it's nice," student LaShay Darkins said. "The teachers here even remember your birthday."

The smaller size and flexible schedule of E3 Academy means that the group can spare a little time to celebrate their milestones and achievements, be it taking the time to sing "Happy Birthday" to a classmate or design T-shirts to wear together for a group presentations. For the history book debut, they created their own superhero emblem for a T-shirt. On the sleeve read their slogan: "My SUPER Power is saving history one story at a time!"

When it comes to preparing for a project or presentation, practice may not always make perfect, but it does give students confidence in themselves and in the quality of their work.

When it came to the book project and interviewing people, the students had some initial hesitance.

"I was nervous about it," said Jason Bunt, who's not always a big talker. "But you learn to face that fear."

The teachers made the class members practice interviewing one another, in a group, then pairs. They made the students write out questions, then took their notes away and have them practice questions on the fly. The students had to learn to record interviews, then listen to them over and over to transcribe and edit them into a book chapter. They even had to learn how to make a book by hand, learning how to stitch folios, and how to design different elements, from the cover to the table of contents.

"Some of us complained and whined," Raechel Morin admitted.

In the end, they not only had a book, but they had stories they still talk about, and, in the city's older generations, they've found new friends the students call "our people."

"We worked for hours and hours," said Caron, "but it was all worth it though."


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