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Hartford Area Career and Technical Center Students Get Outside for Real-World Learning

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
On Friday morning, Jeffrey Spiegel ushered a group of Hartford Area Career and Technical Center students into the Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon.

They were there to do what technical education students have become accustomed to doing: practice the skills and knowledge they have developed beyond classroom walls. Breaking into three groups, the students set up presentations for an audience of researchers and staff from the cancer center, including a short visit from the center’s director, Mark Israel.

As part of their class in “Health, Safety and Nutrition for the Young Child,” the three teams had researched eating disorders and substance abuse and their effects on cancer in young children. They presented their findings in two adjoining conference rooms and a neighboring lounge in the cancer center’s research wing. Through an agreement with River Valley Community College, the class also furnishes the students with three college credits.

This model of education is about to become much more common. Secondary schools in both Vermont and New Hampshire are trying to bring education and work together for all students, both to make education more relevant and to put students in control of their learning.

“I’ve always maintained that the type of education we give at the technical center, all students should have an opportunity (for it) , because it’s applied research,” Spiegel said. “You’re going to learn more about yourself in your work experiences in the community than I can teach you in the classroom.”

In a polished presentation about how disordered eating like bingeing or crash dieting can lead to an eating disorder, Simone Wasick, Lexie West, Alli Fellows and Bree Bomhower articulated how such behaviors are more common among adolescents and children, how they can continue into adulthood and ultimately lead to a weakened immune system, loss of bone density, social isolation, even death. Anorexia, they said, has the highest mortality rate of mental illnesses.

Spiegel, director of the HACTC’s Human Services Program for the past seven years, told the audience not to go easy on the 10 students, all of them seniors, and the questions probed areas of the research that touch the students’ lives.

“Is this a topic of conversation that’s addressed at your school?” asked Kathy Stender, an administrative assistant in the cancer center’s hematology and oncology department. Wasick, a student at Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon, said Lebanon High School regularly talks about eating disorders and that counselors are available.

In their presentation on the impact of drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse on young children, Hayley Perron, Krysten Withington, Ashley Lowell and Katie Steller reported a lengthy toll of grim statistics and showed videos about the effects of addiction on children.

Andrea Gilbert, an administrative assistant in the cancer center’s administrative offices, said she was surprised to learn that young women are more frequent users of alcohol than young men.

“Some of our researchers should watch this to see how they present,” said Laleh Talebian, the cancer center’s director of community health education and cancer prevention and a research scientist. She co-taught the health class with Spiegel.

“I appreciated about this project how much active learning they’re getting,” Talebian said. For her portion of the class, two hours every Friday, Talebian might talk for 20 to 25 minutes about nutrition, then have the students make a snack for the class that separated out different nutritional goals. The students also designed wellness programs and exercised with Talebian, in addition to their research.

“It’s going to continue,” Talebian said. “It’s had a great outcome so far.”

The class is part of a human services curriculum that places students in community jobs three half-days a week. Students from the human services program used to focus heavily on early childhood programs, but it has branched out to include seniors and others who need assistance, Spiegel said. All students are trained in first aid and CPR, and the technical center runs a laboratory school for 3- and 4-year-olds. Students must complete a senior “action research” project, through which they improve the life of a single person, a small group or an organization, Spiegel said.

The feeling that their learning contributes something to their communities right away is a big motivator, the students said.

“It definitely helps us more to decide what we want to do in the future,” said Mark Knapp.

“When we go out (of the classroom) we’re kind of teaching ourselves,” Lexie West said.

If traditional high school classes were more like what she gets at the technical center, “I’d be more motivated to get more out of what I’m doing in class,” said Allison Courtemanche.

The career and technical center plays a singular role in the Upper Valley’s educational landscape. It’s attached to Hartford High School, but it accepts students from high schools in Hanover, Lebanon, Mascoma, Thetford, Windsor and Woodstock.

Spiegel, a longtime elementary teacher who also served as principal of Lebanon’s Hanover Street School for 18 years, is an eager convert to the technical center’s educational model. He subbed for Emily Silver, then director of the human services program, for a year.

“I saw the potential of applied learning,” he said. He was looking to get back into the classroom when the job opened full-time. His seven years have been “pure heaven,” he said.

In the Twin States, policymakers are doing more to put students in charge of their own learning. Vermont law, for example, now requires schools to make it easier for high school students to seek college credits, and starting next year schools will start to implement personal learning plans, where schools essentially ask students “what do you want to learn?” then draw up plans to make it happen.

The technical center will have to adapt to these new policies too, but it won’t have as far to go as traditional high schools.

“When you think of a traditional high school class, how many kids does that teacher see in one day?” Spiegel said. One of the keys to success is the relationship between teachers and students. At the technical center, “we know exactly what’s going on with their lives,” Spiegel said.

The presentations made an impression on Mark Israel, the cancer center’s director, who listened in and even put on a pair of goggles meant to simulate inebriation and walked a line taped on the carpet.

“I have to say, I was very moved in thinking about this,” Israel told the assembly before the students received certificates for participation. In the presentations and in their own educations, the students are practicing ways to take charge of their own lives, he said. Israel called their efforts “probably the most important life lesson that we have to learn, because in the end we’re responsible for ourselves.”

That sense of responsibility is something more students are going to experience in the near future.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.

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