Teaching with Small Boats Alliance

Searsport District High School students build a Shellback dinghy at PMM

Searsport District High School students build a Shellback dinghy at PMM

The sea connects all things. As we observed Columbus Day this past week, I traveled down to Mystic Seaport to attend the Teaching with Small Boats Alliance conference. However we feel about this holiday, we can agree that the Europeans came to America by ship. Whether it was the Viking and Basque fishermen looking for a new fishing spot or European navies looking for mast trees, a ship on the ocean brought them to the North American continent, and the Gulf of Maine in particular. Having found the riches of the continent, a trans-Atlantic and eventually a global trade was born. The best way to transport goods to market is by the sea. A single vessel can carry more of a load than any land-based mode of transport. Searsport and Maine in general provided the bulk of the United States’ deepwater sailors and officers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the majority of the last wooden merchant sailing Downeasters and multi-masted schooners were built in our state’s coastal communities. Young children in Maine grew up learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics as they built boats and navigated them across vast oceans. Today our children are learning those skills in the classroom isolated from their real world applications and many students are failing those subjects.

The Penobscot Marine Museum is reaching out to those students failing in the traditional classroom.  Studies of information retention put reading and verbal instruction as the least effective way of retaining information, yet that is how we teach in traditional classroom settings.  Museums with their exhibits and living history demonstrations where students can hear and see the information has a 50% retention rate.  The highest rate of retention is actually doing a task.  The Penobscot Marine Museum has partnered with the Searsport District High School and local boat-builder Greg Rössel in developing a hands-on science and math curriculum geared for optimum  retention.  The SDHS teachers have developed science and math curriculum tied to building the Shellback dinghy. A select group of SDHS students during the spring semester take a class at the Penobscot Marine Museum with Greg Rössel.  While few of the students will pursue a career in boatbuilding, they come away with an understanding of trigonometry, physics, algebra, geometry and their own skills.  Wanting to know more and connect with similar programs, the Museum sent me as a representative of this partnership to the Teaching with Small Boats Alliance conference.

Searsport District High School Students working on a Shellback dinghy at PMM

Searsport District High School Students working on a Shellback dinghy at PMM

The Teaching with Small Boats Alliance (TWSBA) is a network of maritime schools, boat-building shops, museums and community groups whose vision is to give young people an awareness of and resulting pride in their learning through the hands-on study of the maritime arts, its history and its   relationship to success in math and science.  TWSBA’s mission is to   improve the effectiveness of these organizations through a sharing of ‘best practices’ that promote the values of scholarship, craftsmanship, ingenuity,   self-discipline and a true sense of accomplishment.  The conference this   year focused on organizational development, program development and curriculum   development.  It is all too easy to feel isolated when pursuing   non-traditional models in schools and museums; it is such a relief to meet   with sister institutions from across the United States that have implemented   similar programs and who are willing to share their successes and   failures.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when so many are   willing to share their resources.  There were sessions on the   nitty-gritty issues of insurance, fundraising, human relations, and   leadership which, while not that fun, are necessary to   fulfill our programmatic mission to inspire, educate and recreate.    Other sessions discussed how to get passionate adult volunteers to provide   necessary, but otherwise costly, assistance in the boat shop and providing   one-on-one tutorials in boat-building with the students.  Representatives   from the United States’ nineteen maritime primary and high schools provided   insights in how to “marinize” the Common Core standards, reflecting how the   sea connects all things and all subjects.  Our location on Penobscot   Bay provides students with an open-air classroom in history, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.

Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe

Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at TWSBA conference

Of course all talk and no hands-on activities is an anathema to this   group.  I brought down the Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe built by members of the Penobscot and Western Abenaki nations during the summer of 2006 on the Museum grounds.   Between 2005 and 2010, native apprentices learned the art of birchbark canoe-building on our campus and demonstrated the process to our visitors.  The canoe was a project of note in the Indigenous Programs presentation at the TWSBA conference. Attendees spent three afternoons admiring their   workmanship and taking it out for a paddle in the Mystic  River.    In addition to paddling our canoe, I took a row in the four-man St. Ayles Skiff and one-man Bevin’s Skiff built by other student organizations.

Native apprentices build a Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at PMM

Native apprentices build a Passamaquoddy ocean-going canoe at PMM

I returned from the conference inspired to do more hands-on learning projects.  If you are interested in this way of learning, please visit   the Teaching With Small Boats Alliance website at https://sites.google.com/site/twsballaince/   .  Once you too are inspired, contact the Museum about volunteering with our area students at 207-548-2529 or skettell@pmm-maine.org .

Rowing the St. Ayle's Skiff

Rowing the St. Ayle’s Skiff

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