When less is more: How one small NH school is embracing hands-on learning and building community bonds

Teacher Lori Palmers works with students calculating dimensions for a scale-model replica of their classroom. Photo by Sarah Earle.

The students in Lori Palmer’s 4th- and 5th-grade math class at Freedom Elementary School are up to something big, tiny as it may look. 

For the past few months, they’ve been building a scale model of their classroom, complete with mouse-sized chairs, desks, carts, easels, and more, using a CAD program and a 3-D printer. 

In that time, they’ve accumulated a slew of practical math concepts and skills, including geometry, measurements, decimals, and coordinates on a plane. 

“Before I started doing this project, if I’d asked a 4th grader, ‘what’s half of 65?’ there’s no way they would know,” Palmer said. “But they get so much practice in so many areas doing this.”

Like Palmer’s scale-model classroom, Freedom Elementary School, with just 38 students in grades K-6, is about 1/10th the size of the average New Hampshire school. Like many schools around the state, the school is adapting to new realities, embracing the benefits of its small size by building a strong school community that extends beyond its walls, providing personalized instruction, and immersing students in hands-on, real-world lessons. 

 ‘I’ve never seen them have so much fun’

Palmer dreamed up the scale-model classroom as a way to teach multiplication by 10 and coordinates on a plane. The learning curve was steep, but before too long, the students were immersed in the project, and tiny pieces of furniture in different colors began popping up on the table in the back of the classroom. 

Students work together on a CAD program that will create miniature versions of classroom furniture on a 3-D printer. Photo by Sarah Earle.

“When I started this, I was like, ‘Miss Palmer, can I have help?’ all the time,” said Morgan, a 5th grader, who was measuring the classroom sink with a yardstick on a recent afternoon. “Now we feel comfortable with it, and it’s really fun.”

The project is one of many hands-on, collaborative lessons going on at the school on any given day. Prior to math class that day, the 4th and 5th graders were in Shannon Blaney’s classroom reading to her kindergarten and 1st-grade students. 

“It’s really great for the younger kids. They love it,” Blaney said. Her class also does a combined science class with the 2nd-grade class every Monday, where they regularly take on creative challenges. In the fall, they made miniature pumpkin catapults using candy pumpkins and popsicle sticks. Recently, they had a competition to see who could get a toy fish out of ice the fastest. 

“I’ve never seen them have that much fun,” Blaney said.

Strong Bonds

Along with ample options for project-based learning, students at Freedom Elementary School get individualized attention – not just because of the small class sizes but because of the tight community and dedicated educators. 

“We can recognize the needs of every student … Kids don’t fall between the cracks,” said Palmer, who has taught at the school for 28 years and developed deep relationships with students and their families.

Palmer is part of a core group that have become fixtures at the school and are now teaching a second generation of students. Karen Shackford, currently a reading specialist, has been there even longer than Palmer. She came to Freedom Elementary School 40 years ago and has taught every grade at some point. 

“We really get to know all the kids and all of their families,” said Shackford. “I love it here,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I love it.” 

That sentiment is common for teachers who find their way to some of New Hampshire’s more rural and remote districts.

Students have completed several pieces of furniture for the scale-model replica of one of the classrooms at Freedom Elementary School. Photo by Sarah Earle.

Don Picard came to Berlin, NH, from Burlington, Vt., 26 years ago because the district offered him a full-time position right out of college. He initially planned to stay just a few years but eventually decided to stay long-term. He got a coaching job he’d been hoping for, met his wife (who works in the high school office), purchased a house, and had kids.

“There certainly have been opportunities to go different places, but it’s definitely worth it financially for me to stay,” Picard told Reaching Higher in 2020, citing the low cost of living in the area, among other benefits. “It’s just a different lifestyle.” 

A number of initiatives aim to introduce more teachers to districts like Berlin and Freedom, including a North Country teaching fellowship awarded annually by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation; the North Country Teacher Certification Program, a collaboration between Plymouth State University and White Mountains Community College; and UNH’s Teacher Residency for Rural Education program, a five-year grant-supported initiative that concluded last year.

Community Investment

New Hampshire communities treasure their schools. “Driving through our town, you won’t see any stop lights, you won’t see any convenience stores, but we do have our school,” Webster resident David Nesbitt, said at a listening session organized by the Merrimack Valley School District to discuss declining enrollment last fall. “Our school helps give us an identity … that’s something our town desperately needs to keep us together.” 

Fostering that sense of togetherness is a priority for Freedom Elementary School. Toward the end of each school year, the school hosts a community lunch for the senior population in town. “They are our guests for the day,” Palmer said. “We all have lunch together, and the kids do a music program and give them tours.” 

The students also frequently get out into the community for special events and field trips. Such experiences help young people blossom, but they also nurture the school’s roots, said  Principal Elaine Sherry. “If we can get the community interested in what we’re doing,” she said, “they help us with the kids.” 

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