PORTSMOUTH — Maple syrup bubbled excitedly outside of Robert J. Lister Academy last week, inside a shed brimming with the smells of wood fire and sweet goodness, as students sat nearby doing math homework.
In celebration of New Hampshire Maple Weekend, the RJLA Maple Syrup Makers were scheduled to open their sugar shack to the public on Saturday, but the coronavirus pandemic has shut down those plans. The state’s Maple Weekend has also been canceled.
After the health emergency subsides, the public will still have the opportunity to support the effort through purchase of products.
The interdisciplinary, hands-on, immersive experience for students has grown significantly over the last few years. RJLA high school students, with the help of their teachers Christine Stillwell and Brett Fletcher, work with all third-graders in the Portsmouth School District and four preschool classes at Seacoast Community School on math, science and history connections as they relate to maple syrup and tree tapping.
The Maple Syrup Makers are supported by the school district’s Farm to School program, which is headed by coordinator Kate Mitchell. The maple program now reaches 200 students district-wide.
The program began at RJLA five years ago, where for the first two years, Stillwell, a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year in 2019 and the state’s agriculture teacher of the year in 2020, used a barrel stove outdoors under a tarp. This was “not conducive to the learning experience,” she said, particularly getting students to stay out in the cold.
So the school started a fundraiser to purchase a shed, which ultimately raised $4,000 from the community. The shed was then retrofitted into the sugar shack it is today, right on school property. Even if they’re not working on the syrup, students do schoolwork throughout the day in the balmy, comfortable space.
In addition to the hands-on experience of tapping trees and seeing the final product in a bottle or on pancakes, the curriculum teaches students about tree anatomy, bark, math conversions, data collection and liquid measurements, Fletcher said.
“This year has been particularly amazing,” Fletcher said of the student interest.
At Little Harbour Elementary School, for example, blue “tapping” buckets can be seen from the road hanging from trees. Fletcher said at RJLA, they tap trees on the school grounds and in the Sherburne Road neighborhood.
“Some will get donated to the people in the neighborhood, some will go to the students, and hopefully the rest we’ll sell Maple Weekend,” Stillwell said.
Fletcher said many schools across New Hampshire have sugar shacks, but “what makes our program unique is we are engaging the high school students and the third grade students at the same time, and making the community connections.”
For the last two years, the district’s maple syrup has taken third place in a statewide competition run by New Hampshire Agriculture in the Classroom.
RJLA junior Amanda Schlemmer said she has conducted several experiments with the third-graders this year in relation to density, and has enjoyed it.
“It was pretty cool because they knew a lot already,” she said. “They caught on pretty quickly.”
“It’s been really incredible to see the smart and steady growth of this program,” Mitchell said. “Christine and Brett’s dedication … who knows what the years to come will offer students and the community.”
For more information, visit the Maple Syrup Makers Facebook page at https://bit.ly/2U0AnkD.