Newburyport Daily News – January 20, 2014

By Jim Sullivan Correspondent

AMESBURY — One day, it hit her like a ton of bricks. Things were getting stale.

Amesbury Middle School fifth-grade social studies and language arts teacher Karen Brannelly made an admission to herself over the summer: Her annual research project was getting played out and something needed to change.

“We are required to do a research project,” said Brannelly. “And in the past, we have done research on George Washington and or some famous event in history. We’d do the traditional go to the library and websites and look at books, that kind of thing and I said, ‘Instead of doing that, we are going to be researching groups of people that make our community what it is.’ That seemed a little more exciting, a little more real world.”

Brannelly, along with math and science teacher Derek Bent, will be combining their Aqua team classes and spreading out through the city of Amesbury itself over the next month in their school’s first-ever Passionate about Places program, a place-based education philosophy that encourages students to take control over their learning by making connections within their communities.

“Our purpose is for (the students) to be closer to their community,” said Brannelly. “It’s about being civic-minded, being good citizens, not only now but in the future.”

Aware that people learn by doing, Brannelly and Brent’s 45 students will be working with eight different community partners — Amesbury Police and Fire Departments, Amesbury Public Library, Amesbury Youth Services, The Pettengill House, The Littlest Change, Lowell’s Boat Shop and the Amesbury Educational Foundation. The students will spend some time researching each organization then offer them a service such PowerPoint presentations, posters, whatever works for the subject at hand.

“We are going to ask them, what are your needs? What is it you are looking to do?” said Brannelly. “(We want to) give them better knowledge of what goes on in our community. So when budget season comes up or they see something in the paper where the Pettengill House is doing a food drive or back-to-school backpacks or something like that, they would be more inclined to jump in and help because they have more knowledge about what that group does and how wonderful they are.”

Brannelly got the idea over the summer when she took a graduate class through the National Park Service (and Essex Heritage – ed.) and learned of some local classes that had done something similar.

“They were a class from either Boxford or Topsfield and they had studied a pond across the street from their school,” said Brannelly. “And I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool but that is science-related. What can I study that is in Amesbury?’ How do you take your average run-of-the-mill field trip and make it more placed-based, more meaningful, more grounded and give it a purpose that goes beyond writing a paper and getting a grade?”

So far the students have researched each organization via the Internet and will be interviewing representatives from each during a breakfast in the first week of February. This will not be student Xavier Roy’s first crack at the interview game, either; he interviewed some firefighters in second grade.

“It’s really exciting. I love doing this kind of stuff,” said Xavier. “I think it is kind of fun to learn more about people in the community and how interesting all their jobs are.”

Fellow student Madyson Pope said she is looking forward to doing something different.

“I don’t really like looking up different things in the books,” said Madyson. “I like actually talking to people. I don’t care what group I get, I just want to meet some of the people and do the project.”

Amesbury police officer Tom Hanshaw will be his department’s representative and is excited to have his department involved with a project that reflects the here and now.

“It should be fun,” said Hanshaw. “It’s great to have somebody doing a community-interest project. It’s great that there are classes where kids learn about other places and times and those kind of things, but to do something relevant with the community that we have, I think is a great idea.”

Although she is the teacher, Brannelly stressed that she wants her students and the community partners to make their projects work together.

“We’re going to let this be a little give and take for the kids and the community partners and they can figure it out together,” said Brannelly. “I don’t want it to be anything where I am telling them how they should feel or how they should think. I would like them to do their own investigations and figure out what they like about the groups and take that and make it their own.”

Read this story on the Newburyport Daily News website.

For more information visit or call Essex Heritage at 978-744-0444.