Making the Grade: “Project Sweet Talk” Puts Maple Syrup on the Curriculum

The learning opportunity is a tradition at Vermont's Fairfield Center School

"Project Sweet Talk" at Vermont's Fairfield Center School sees middle schoolers producing maple syrup through their own sugaring operation at school.

"We're really, really lucky to have such a nice sugaring community and those opportunities to sugar," said Fairfield eighth grader Alyssa Lambert.

For a decade now, the school has been using donated equipment and supplies to guide classes through the ins and outs of maple syrup production: from gathering sap the old-fashioned way with buckets on trees around town, to boiling it way down to syrup using a wood-fired evaporator.

"It was just a fun opportunity for me to learn about it," said Desiree LeClair, another eighth grader.

"It's really fun to be with other people while you're doing it, too," added LeClair's classmate, Zander Herbert.

Fun is a given, but there is serious learning to Project Sweet Talk, as well.

Principal Jen Wood explained long before the students craft Vermont's signature flavor, they're researching tree functions, using math and science processes to determine density of syrup and other technical aspects of syrup production, and putting their writing to the test for a unit on maple marketing. They also study agricultural practices and cultural history, and interview local sugar makers about their contributions to the iconic Vermont industry.

"We value the traditions that make us who are, and sugaring is a big part of who we are in Fairfield," Wood said, noting that the community is well-known for its long history of maple syrup production.

John Baxter, the school's maintenance director, is also an experienced sugar maker. He guides the eighth graders through the process of sap collection and boiling, and oversees safety and proper techniques in the sugarhouse.

Younger children come through the sugarhouse with their teachers to observe the boiling, and to sample the fresh crop. Some of what's produced ends up being served in the school cafeteria, as well.

"Most of it we sell to staff and parents," said eighth grader Colby Dukas.

Baxter explained earnings from those sales help fund this project, as well as other outdoor classroom work on the region's agricultural heritage. The students also have a greenhouse and gardens at school, and harvest the healthy food they grow.

"We're creating a sugaring family, and just want to keep the generations alive that can make such a great product," eighth grader Leah Branon told necn. "And just keep it going, because it's a really great thing to have, and we're really fortunate to have it."

The sugarhouse the kids use was itself a learning opportunity for older students. It was built by high schoolers in the building trades program at the nearby Northwest Technical Center in St. Albans.

For more information on Project Sweet Talk, you can visit the students’ website

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