Navigating our future by sailing through our past.
An exploration in education

Nancy Martling, Maritime Park Association

"Your orders were to bring me an experienced crew. This is not an experienced crew! Not one man holds seaman's papers. They look like landlubbers, Mr. Morgan, landlubbers! I plan to sail with the tide, and you stand to forfeit two month's pay if this rabble is not brought up to snuff by sundown." barks Captain Wright. A wave of excitement and panic engulfs the crew of fifth grade students as they begin their 19-hour "voyage" aboard the historic tall ship C. A. Thayer.

The Maritime Park Association , a non-profit organization, is dedicated to preservation and education in order to enhance public understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of our Nation's maritime heritage. The Association works in partnership with the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park to build support for the historic ships and extensive museum collection and to provide educational programs.

Many of the education programs the Association offer fall under the heading of "living history" and the historic tall ships on Hyde Street Pier provide a unique point of departure into this world of experiential education. As the name suggests, living history is an extremely powerful educational concept that utilizes a historic vessel (either original or replica) as a medium aboard which students "step back in time", bringing history alive, connecting, in a solid and authentic fashion, the present to the past in such a way that participants are able to recognize the similarities and differences of the times.

This concept of living history was pioneered at Hyde Street Pier over 20 years ago by a visionary Park Ranger named David Nettell. He recognized that the C. A. Thayer could be a powerful classroom for children throughout Northern California. Dr. Stanley Cummings, then with the Yosemite Institute, recognised the power of the program, and with the Park Service's blessing, "borrowed" the concept, obtained the Brig Pilgrim, and built the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, CA. When the Park Service felt they were no longer able to manage the program on Hyde Street Pier, they contracted with O.C.M.I. to expand and operate the program. During the first year, the program grew from 600 participant to 6,000 elementary school children a year. Two years ago, in 1995, the Maritime Park Association acquired the programs, which had grown to include Age of Sail, Age of Sail 2 (sail training), Life on the Barbary Coast, and The Gold Rush. Participant's numbers now hover at 11,000 a year.

Our programs engage students emotionally, intellectually and physically, allowing them to experience the waterfront much as a lad of 1906 might well perceive it. Through the power of imagination, students are able to embark upon an exciting educational adventure back in time to the San Francisco Barbary Coast, a bustling, vibrant, dynamic waterfront. History becomes something vital and alive -- a continuum they share with people very much like themselves who lived less then 100 years ago.

Elementary and middle school children sign aboard our vessel "for a time not to exceed 12 calendar months" and travel back to the year 1906. San Francisco lies before us in smoldering ruins, devastated by a great earthquake and fire. Our vessel, the C.A. Thayer, has fulfilled her temporary role as a floating hospital and now sets about to resume her normal role: that of a lumber schooner. The students sign aboard as the replacement crew and begin task designed to prove to the captain that they are a worthy and trusted crew.

Environmental living history programs have proven astonishingly effective at energizing student's interest in history while equipping them with the "life skills" of critical thinking, problem solving, clear communication skills and teamwork. These skills bring us together as a well functioning, cohesive, productive society, yet they are not innate. These skills must be learned and they are learned through example and trial and error.

The tasks are always possible, but always a challenge. They were designed to require a minimum of 3 to 4 children working together. Physical tasks include running and riding in a bosun's chair, throwing heaving lines, setting hawsers, rowing a longboat, cooking on a wood burning stove and standing nightwatch. Intellectually, tasks include trusting themselves and each other, taking a chance with the unknown and untested, conquering fears, whether they be of heights, the water, or failure, and recognizing the benefit of a cohesive group as opposed to a group of individuals. When the tasks begin, crews are made up of 5 to 7 individuals. As each crew begins to work as a cohesive unit, we combine them with another crew, forcing the 2 units to act as one. This combining continues until the entire class is working together.

The children realize, in solid, immediate terms, the necessity of listening, discussing, experimenting, and working together. When asked what the most important things learned were, comments such as, " Follow direction, work together as a team, help out each other, and getting along with each other. We finally worked together for once, instead of fighting like we were before. We got along and did a good job" and ,"We feel differently about our classmates. Our friendship grew because they can do a lot of things we never knew about." are common.

Unfortunately, many of today's children are not observing these positive societal skills in their homes or out in their immediate community. Schools are trying to teach these skills, but are falling short of their goal due to the lack of time (children are at school for only a few hours a day) and the lack of motivation. (How can a lecturer in a square room with stark walls compete with the active, exciting, and often "less demanding" outside world?)

Adding to the difficulties, these values and skills are difficult to teach in the traditional learning environment. The trick is to get the students to a place where they must develop, refine, and rely on these skills to be successful. Being out of the classroom, where all the preconceived, set patterns and inter-personal relationships that have developed through out the school years ("Pat always cries, Lee is too stupid, Mickey can't do anything right") are tossed aside. We get children out of their "normal" environment and let them explore themselves and each other.

People learn in different ways. Some learn by hearing, other seeing, and many learn through the process of doing. Children who learn more easily by reading and hearing tend to excel in the mainstream educational approach. Children who learn by doing struggle a bit more because the our educational system is not designed around that type of stimuli. Get children on our ship, and the tables turn. Onboard, every child can highlight their personal strengths.

Being on board also means you have to apply what you have learned -- you have to take a historical solution and apply it to a seemingly modern problem. The lesson of applying new skills and tactics is in no way limited to the communities of the ship or classroom. These lessons can be moved directly to the larger community of school, home, neighborhood, and city. Children need to see this continuum of history. Not only can they align themselves with the past, but more importantly, the future.

The development of an idea is a powerful concept. Often we think of learning as a cumulative process, with one fact built on the foundation of another. This is not the case. We do not revisit the historical background of an idea, the original concept. We know the outcome and teach the final step. If this continues, the foundation for these ideas will crumble and be lost. What will happen when we are faced with the modern day equivalent of a historical problem? Reinvent the wheel? Exploration 100 years ago focused on the ocean, an environment that we could not breathe in, so the diving suit was developed. Now, we explore space, an environment we cannot breathe in .... The suit has not changed much. What is the next step?

When developing education programs for your local schools it is important consult your state's Curriculum Guides for the appropriate ages and to include teachers in the design process. It is not enough to design a fun, educational program. You must design programs that teachers want, need, and can use.

Spend extra time on your curriculum design. Organizing field trips is difficult, at best. Preparation materials should make the teacher's jobs easier, not more difficult. Call teachers frequently and check their progress in the classroom. A well prepared group and a confident teacher will produce a more effective and smoother running program for everyone.

When choosing participants, do not always lean towards the "easiest" students and schools. Often, it is the more difficult schools, those in inner cities and lower income areas, that need these extracurricular programs the most. Strive for your participants to accurately reflect your population.

Our cities are not the only community that will feel the impact of our programs. These children, hundreds of thousands strong, are our maritime future. It is these children who experienced the rolling of a ship, felt a line in their hands, and know the importance of "one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship." The memory of their experience will stay with them always. They will be these young adults and adults who return time after time to "check up" on "their" ship. They will be the future members of our organizations and supporters of the ships. These children, with their taste of a sailor's life, will be the next generation of riggers, shipwrights, and sail makers. The livelihood and longevity of the tradition of tall ships rests with them.

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Version 1.00, 18 Aug 1997