The non-profit organization Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island (OHPRI) helped six Rhode Island educators become students again this summer during a five-day education-at-sea voyage from Philadelphia to Newport aboard the 177-foot tall ship Gazela. The learning experience in the floating classroom served as a prelude to the educational programs that will be offered on Rhode Island’s official sailing education vessel, the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, when it is commissioned in 2013 as a 196-foot long, 13½-story, fully-rigged tall ship. The teachers onboard represented Salve Regina University (Newport), Paul Cuffee School (Providence), Chariho Regional School District (Southern Rhode Island), The Greene School (West Greenwich) and Toll Gate High School (Warwick).
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for these teachers, professors and administrators to experience the powerful classroom experience created on the deck of a ship,” said OHPRI’s Education Director Jessica Wurzbacher (Jamestown, R.I.), who over the past ten years has logged over 40,000 nautical miles teaching high school and college-level programs onboard schooners. “The experience is hard to explain; you need to be there and do it, and that’s exactly what they did: standing watch under the stars at 3 a.m., climbing the rigging to furl the sails and helping to keep the ship and crew safe and secure. Their new passion is now being channeled to their schools and to their students as we continue to develop our programs.”
Wurzbacher added that the educators were assigned homework after the trip had wrapped up: to come up with lesson plans that combined experience-based education with their specific subject of learning.
“We are moving from receiving information from OHPRI to now saying, ‘how can we make shape to it?’ said Dr. Kathy Vespia (East Greenwich, R.I.), assistant professor and chair of the Education Program at Salve Regina University. “We are now in the proposal development phase and working with Jessica to add meat to the bones.” Vespia added that Salve University is exploring ways for students, in undergraduate and continuing education programs, to participate in classes aboard the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry to receive credit.
“For example, our Salve students who are going to become teachers through our pre-teacher training program need to be prepared to provide unique experiences and motivate their students to be team members,” said Vespia. “Onboard a tall ship, personal needs get put aside, so if you’re thirsty and someone says ‘all hands on deck,’ you hold off your thirst and get things done. It doesn’t connect until you really put your hands on it.”
And hands-on experience is exactly what was received by each of the adult educators aboard Gazela, including Matt Hodge (Warwick, RI), who teaches history at Toll Gate High School. “I see a lot of connections I can make,” said Hodge. “I’ve been talking to my students about the history of Narragansett Bay and the history of the maritime industry. Sailing is what led to much of the interaction of the world; from navigation and naval warfare to why civilizations are situated where they are. Those are the things that I like to explore.”
Hodge added that after such incredible results from his experience, he also sees opportunities for professional development programs for adults aboard the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry, a vision also shared by Associate Principal and Special Educator at Paul Cuffee School Michelle Bush (Jamestown, R.I.).
“Students are often faced with things they don’t know anything about, which can be very intimidating,” said Bush. “As a teacher and an administrator, I know what I’m doing when I’m telling other people what to do. It’s good to step back and be the one that doesn’t have a clue and has to figure it out.”
Bush added that she sees her school using this education platform for a variety of different subjects. “There was a lot of problem solving and math involved onboard. For example, the angles we have to measure, how far off certain boats are when we’re on watch or on lookout, and even the degrees you are turning when you’re at the helm.”
The Greene School’s math teacher Adam Cherko (North Kingstown, R.I.) developed a new outlook on education-at-sea programs and the friendships that can be forged when working together as a team in close quarters. “In any situation, you always come in with a particular expectation or a certain mindset, and even if you’re open to things, you still have preconceived notions,” said Cherko, adding that, right off the bat, Gazela’s Captain Richard Bailey (who will eventually command the SSV Oliver Hazard Perry) cited the rule of priorities aboard: ship first, shipmates second, self last.
“At first, I wasn’t sure what it would be like,” said Cherko, “working alongside other teachers and crew day-in and day-out, but by relying on somebody else to make sure that a rope doesn’t slip or your hand doesn’t get caught, you develop such a relationship and a love for each other, which I didn’t expect in five days. I think it’s incredible!”
To view a video documentary of the five-day education-at-sea voyage through the eyes of Salve Regina University’s Dr. Kathy Vespia, click here.