Five weeks into the school year, Matinicus Island School teacher Heather Wells was almost wishing things would get a little more…humdrum. “Well, not really,” she smiles, “but we haven’t had a single full week of regular school yet.”

To date, her six-student group has attended the Inter-Island Event on Islesford in September. They learned about how sheep-herding dogs really work, marched in the Garden Parade and considered the biology of composting at the Common Ground Country Fair.

They have observed and learned about migratory patterns with ornithologists from the University of Maine and U.S. Fish and Wildlife as they banded songbirds on Metinic Island and, of course, attended the opening of their own art show, “Matinicus: The Place Beyond,” at Julia’s Gallery for Young Artists in Rockland.

Sometimes people assume that island students, because of their physical isolation, miss out on the artistic and cultural exposures and experiential learning opportunities that are important for a well-rounded elementary education. Not these days, maintain the teachers, parents, school committee members, volunteers, island fellows, mentoring neighbors and local artists who have gone out of their way to make certain that the kids from Matinicus get a lot more than “the three R’s.”

For example, the show of photographs at Julia’s Gallery, part of Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum, is the culmination of a two-year Building Bridges arts project involving island schools, local artists, the Farnsworth, and Maine Media Workshop. Matinicus mentor-artist Maury Colton works closely with the children throughout the year. The show, “Matinicus: The Place Beyond,” ran from September 24 through October 31.

The photography project continues through the 2009-10 academic year, this time with a specifically scientific focus. Combining art with study of environmental science makes perfect sense when students are blessed with such ready access to marine, intertidal, woodland and cultivated land biomes. “Learning to be a good steward of the environment,” in the words of Island Institute Fellow Lana Cannon, who brings her own scientific background to the classroom, parallels the development of an aesthetic sensibility.

The Matinicus Island School boasts a new curriculum for social studies and science. Ready to use but always a work-in-progress, our curriculum is the result of several years of work by Lana Cannon, her predecessor Island Institute Fellow Anne Bardaglio, and School Committee Chair Natalie Ames, with the help of other island teachers.

The intention is not to restrict teachers with a rigid script, but rather to construct a template to ensure that the same instructional focus does not predominate year after year while other important themes are perhaps overlooked. The four-year cycle of topics will allow each teacher a sense of what areas the students have covered before and when.

This year’s social studies theme is World Studies, and students, ranging from kindergarten through grade 6, will study five regions of the globe through history and culture, visual art, music and food. They will build masks, prepare local delicacies, present traditional research reports, and make use of technology to interact with the cultures of their studies. Some may recall such assignments in their own elementary years with a groan, but there is far more available to these students now than a bare-bones encyclopedia entry listing the “principal exports of Bolivia!”

As I write, the school prepares for a visit from Chris Van Dusen, author and illustrator of “The Circus Ship.” Students and staff laugh and roll their eyes as they sort out minor technical issues with their new Rosetta Stone Spanish programs. Thanks to Lana, each island student has received a state library card, allowing the children access to Books by Mail (a service many of the island’s adults use regularly). Each morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s time for a bit of yoga to stretch the muscles and encourage concentration-this thanks to educational technician Nat Hussey, our school’s yoga teacher, music teacher, and the composer (along with the kids) of “Matinicus Island, The Place Beyond,” the gentle song which not only gave its name to the art show but is well on its way to becoming the theme song for island events of all sorts.

In October, teacher Heather Wells attended the Island Teacher’s Conference, conducted by the Island Institute in Belfast. Meanwhile, educational technician Robin Tarkleson held down the fort in the classroom. Robin shares the position with Nat, as both have other seasonal jobs. Nat is a sternman on the island, a performing musician and, from time to time, when absolutely necessary, an attorney. Robin is a paramedic, a ski patroller, and a weaver who sells her work in the area.  Needless to say, all of the adults who work in the Matinicus classroom bring their skills, hobbies, passions and expertise to the island’s children…whether as part of the job or simply as neighbors. The pupils at the Matinicus school are not isolated and do not lack for art; we intend to keep it that way.

Eva Murray is a freelance writer who lives on Matinicus Island.