Published Date Written by Timothy GillisPortland School Board member Holly Seeliger is about much more than just budget meetings and stump speeches. Since the school year started in the fall, the first-term policy-maker — elected in November — has been volunteering 40 hours a week at the Real School on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, giving her time away for free to students struggling to succeed.
Seeliger volunteers through the AmeriCorps program, which helps like-minded people donate their time and talent back to the local communities where they live.
Pender Makin, director of the Real School, said it's the first time in her experience that she has known a school board member who volunteered to teach.
"She, like all of the AmeriCorps volunteers, are bringing great energy and care," said Makin. "And by virtue of the fact they are volunteering their time and services, it's definitely inspirational to the kids, and that's really positive."
The Real School works with students from 22 schools from Southern Maine, as far south as Sanford, as far north as Lisbon Falls, and as far west as Fryeburg. "Pretty much any district you can name," Makin said. The school is dually certified, as both an alternative program and a day-treatment program, and currently serves 55 students.
When a student is struggling to succeed in his or her own high school, they often find a better fit with the structure of the Real School, which emphasizes individualized and experiential learning. Always a popular place for the educator looking for a sizeable challenge, the Real School works with AmeriCorps volunteers on several projects.
"AmeriCorps is a formalized volunteering program, and working with them has caused us to formalize our own procedures," Makin said. "We're trying to reciprocate their volunteering with professional development."
Seeliger appreciates the chance to grow through such teacher trainings, but says the daily class experience is often lesson enough.
Her work on a daily news segment at school blossomed into a lesson plan because the students were intrigued by the topic.
"We were reading about the Town of Casco, which passed a resolution to not allow the tar sands pipeline through their town," Seeliger said. "We were doing a daily news event with students and I told them about the tar sands pipeline possibility. The kids seemed interested because they saw their town involved in national news. Usually news is someplace they've never heard of or been, so it is more tangible for kids."
Seeliger, who grew up in North Berwick and went to Noble High School, works with 15 students each day at the Real School.
"Sometimes you feel like you're grasping for straws trying to grab kids' interest," she said. "And sometimes you think something will grab their interest, but it doesn't. When you can get kids to reflect upon news, that's when you know you have helped kids learn something."
For the lesson, Seeliger photocopied a map of the affected areas, the towns in Maine through which the tar sands pipeline would run, and then posed a couple of questions for the students: "Which towns in Maine could be affected by the tar sands pipeline?" and "Which major sources of water could be affected by the pipeline?"
"Kids answered the questions, and then we had a good discussion. They were excited to think that their town could pass a resolution saying 'No' to the pipeline," Seeliger said. "The hope is that if enough towns say no, it could stop the pipeline's being built. The kids got that their town is part of a larger network of (affected) towns all across the U.S. Everyone drinks water, so it's a story that affects everyone."