Students 'take back future' with opioid project

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WINDHAM — A group of seventh-graders at Windham Middle School has jumped in the Delorean and traveled to 2055 as part of a project to understand Maine’s opioid epidemic. 

The project employs a unique form of fake news that students can use to understand an issue that continues to affect communities across Maine. 

Approximately 75 students have used research and data over a roughly six-week period to create their own fictional newspaper front page as part of “Take Back Maine’s Future,” a learning exercise devised by a group of Windham Middle School team leaders.

The Back to the Future-inspired project had students envision one of two futures for the state: an optimistic one where officials have taken steps to solve Maine’s opioid crisis, and another where the problems associated with opioid addiction have gotten worse. 

Policymakers, prevention and recovery experts, health care professionals, law enforcement officials and others continue to wrestle with Maine’s opioid epidemic, which involves addiction to illegal substances such as heroin and fentanyl as well as prescription drugs such as oxycodone. 

In February, the Maine Attorney General’s Office reported that 418 people died from overdoses in Maine during 2017, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year.

Doug Elder, a seventh-grade social studies and math teacher, said he and other team leaders decided to peruse a project on opioids “given the enormity of the issue” and because it’s something students already see and hear about.

He said that a goal of such project-based learning is “to really try to help students take part in high-impact topics.” 

Students each wrote two fictional, forward-looking news stories based on which future they drew out of a hat. Headlines about the “optimistic” future included: “Teenager gives father’s heroin to drug takeback program” and “Funds for education increase.” “Maine uses all of their Narcan” and “Ten shot refusing to give money for drugs” were among the “pessimistic” headlines.

Several of the students involved in the project said it was a tough but important subject to explore. 

“My article is about the bad future,” said Odessa Files, 13. “It’s been really hard to work on this, but it’s been interesting to learn about.” 

Files said it was difficult to keep within the 300-600 word limit for the stories,  given the amount of information on the topic. 

“It’s definitely a process in the making of each article,” said Ella Wilcox, 12, who also wrote stories that envision a 2055 where Maine’s opioid problem has intensified. 

“It’s important to tackle heavy topics,” said Dallin Duncan, 13, who wrote stories about a positive future. 

Duncan said that although he previously had some understanding of opioid epidemic, he hadn’t realized the extent of the problem, he said.

“I didn’t understand it was this severe,” Files added. 

Elder said that “many of the students know far more than we thought” about the statewide struggle with opioids, noting that some students have family experience with the issue and that teachers had to be “tactful” in their approach to the project. 

Principal Drew Patin said he hadn’t heard any concerns from parents about the seriousness of the topic. 

The 75 students who each created their own newspapers are set to display them at a Thursday, June 7, event from 6:30-8 p.m. at the school. Elder said he had planned to build a model of the Delorean featured in the “Back to the Future” movies until he connected with a Delorean owner who lives in Massachusetts. The car’s owner is going to bring it to the event. 

Patin said the event will provide an opportunity for students to present their work that is “more than just the typical presentation to kids in front of a classroom.”

“Involving these kids in these types of solutions is really what project-based learning is,” he said.

While this group of seventh-graders is focusing on the opioid issue, Patin said that for the first time, all sixth-, seventh- and eight-grade teams have their own project-based learning topic this year. Several other teams will have their presentation event on June 14.

The school’s emphasis on project-based learning is supported by a partnership with King Middle School in Portland. Patin said his school has looked to King Middle School as a model, and that staff from both schools has visited and worked with each other through a grant that the Portland school received. 

At the beginning of the opioid project, the school held a kickoff even with panelists from the law enforcement, prevention and recovery communities.

Laura Morris, Executive Director of the Be the Influence Coalition that promotes drug free communities in Windham and Raymond, said her group helped provide prevention education and organize speakers for the project. Speakers included  Seth Blais, who chronicles his drug addiction and recovery in a Portland Press Herald column; the city of Portland’s Substance Use Prevention Program coordinator Bridget Rauscher; and several members of the Windham Police Department. 

“I think it’s a fantastic project and the students have really embraced it,” Morris said, adding that it has allowed them to “really understand what the opioid crisis is.” 

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Windham Middle School student Lucas Spencer made a banner for the upcoming “Taking Back Maine’s Future” event. 

Windham Middle School seventh-graders Odessa Files, left, Ella Wilcox and Dallin Duncan display electronic versions of the newspapers they created as part of the “Taking Back Maine’s Future” project. 

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