At Knowledge Fair, hard work and creativity is on display

Hello from North Haven!

At our tiny K-12 public school – the smallest in the state – we dig deep each late winter and produce something called Knowledge Fair. This means students moving away from traditional classroom learning to focus on hands-on experiences and presenting their findings to the community, using original visual displays to enhance the presentation.

This is my twelfth Knowledge Fair at North Haven Community School, and one of the best, in my opinion. I spend most of my time in the high school during the process – I’m one of the high school English teachers, so in addition to the students I directly advised, I read and edit a whole lot of papers – but was delighted to see the whole school’s results.

I brought Penrose, my almost three-year-old, to the school to see the students’ work. Inviting the community to see Knowledge Fair is the most important element, and I was curious to see how she would fare and what she might take away from the night.

The Kindergarten, first, second and third grade students focused, with their two teachers, on simple machines. The evening of Knowledge Fair, they were buzzing with excitement as they explained how each machine worked and where they could be found in our day to day lives. The highlight was the enormous Rube Goldberg machine they built, which sent marbles and pingpong balls flying, ultimately sending a roller skate into a computer keyboard. The classroom, packed with community members, parents and kids, burst into cheers and applause. Pen clapped right along with them, fascinated by the color and motion.

Students observe a test of the K-3 Rube Goldberg machine in preparation for Knowledge Fair. Photo courtesy of North Haven Community School.

In the fourth grade classroom, the six students shared their new knowledge of Antarctica. They had interfaced, both through video chat and a site visit, with a scientist from Bigelow Labs, and each student was an expert on one animal (macrofauna, they told me proudly) and one research station. Pen found one of her big kid buddies and he happily gave her his colossal squid spiel, complete with a beautiful painting of the mysterious cephalopod.

The middle school turned their wing of the school into an immersive Medieval environment. In costume and in some cases makeup, the students invited visitors to experience the food, punishments, trades and military of the middle ages. The ownership and pride they displayed in their work was evident, and the beautiful execution made the experience all the more enjoyable.

I took particular pride in my high school students this year, who went above and beyond to create visual displays the drew the viewer in. One student, studying Punk History, created a punk bedroom. Little kids, Penrose included, sat on the tiny bed admiring the Ramones t-shirts, leather jackets, spikes and the posters my student hand drew as she expertly explained how socioeconomic inequalities led to the birth of punk in London and New York. Around the corner a giant rod and reel attracted visitors to a presentation about the declining bluefin tuna population, and a student proudly showed off the wood lathe he restored. Another student, inspired by his family’s new kelp aquaculture business, explained ocean acidification to people of all ages and levels of expertise.

Through Knowledge Fair, students get to dig deep into a topic, often of their own choosing. Much of the learning happens with dirty hands, literally or metaphorically, and we require students to do some element of original research, whether it’s conducting an interview with an expert, conducting an experiment, or building or repairing something. They also practice important research skills by finding reliable sources, taking notes, and correctly citing their sources in a substantial research paper. The whole thing is assessed using our academic standards, proving that non-traditional learning is valid, valuable and provides opportunities for students to succeed and explore their interests. We offer a lot of opportunities for nontraditional learning throughout the year – working in the wood shop, welding, growing vegetables in our aquaponics greenhouse, apprenticing with the preschool or in a trade – but Knowledge Fair is the most organized and public way we show off that learning.

After almost two hours at the school (and a break for some delicious PTO macaroni and cheese), Penrose was less edified and more teetering on the edge of madness. I’m glad to know, though, that when she starts attending our unusual school (which will happen sooner than I think!), she’ll get to participate in Knowledge Fair and get her hands dirty too.

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!