World Ocean School takes experiential learning to sea

Aboard the 137-foot schooner Roseway, students learn math, science, language arts and teamwork

Abby Kidder, president and co-founder of the World Ocean School, says she doesn’t really see discipline problems aboard the Roseway, a 137-foot schooner built in 1925. Teachers sometimes point out certain kids as ones to keep an eye on, but on the water, behavior problems go away. It’s because there’s so much to engage them, Kidder says.

World Ocean School primarily serves kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who struggle academically within the confines of traditional schools. Building up their self-esteem is an important element of the World Ocean School curriculum.

“Our population of kids struggles with feeling successful on a day-to-day basis,” Kidder said. “They have so much potential, but they’ve never had an opportunity to let that shine.” On the boat, it’s a completely different learning experience.

Students rely on all their senses in hands-on activities that cross physics, math, history and English curricula.

“We hear from kids all the time ‘I didn’t know I could do that,’” Kidder said.

Middle schoolers from the South Boston Neighborhood House work together to raise the Roseway’s main sail.
Tara Garcîa Mathewson

They learn navigation skills, the physics of how boats sail, the concept of displacement, that sailors wrote poems during long trips out to sea and the history of the boat and the places it travels. They are responsible for raising and lowering four sails, the main one of which weighs a ton. This work requires a team effort, which represents a second major goal of the program.

When Kidder co-founded World Ocean School, the idea was to teach kids the responsibilities of being part of a community. A boat is necessarily a confined community, and it forces kids to learn quickly the importance of watching out for each other and working together.

On a recent trip out into the Boston Harbor, seventh and eighth graders from the South Boston area boarded the schooner and got to work almost immediately. Some of them pulled up the fenders that were protecting the boat from the dock. Others split up into different parts of the deck to raise the main sail, then the fore sail, jumbo and jib. They made “working coils” out of the extra rope, keeping it neat and ready to use.

Alexis Rouse, 13, winced and inspected her hands after helping raise the last sail but quickly looked to a crew member for her next task. She didn’t think she’d have blisters the next day, but she sure felt the exercise.

“Even some things when you think it’s easy, like to put up the sails, it takes a lot of work,” Alexis said. “It takes a lot of perseverance to make it work.”

Many of these kids, all attending a summer program through the South Boston Neighborhood House, have been on boats before. Several have attended sailing camps and many of them have relatives who own boats. Unlike many of the World Ocean School attendees, being on the water wasn’t necessarily new. But that didn’t mean they weren’t learning.

Students from the South Boston area calculate the speed of the boat, in nautical miles, using a distance divided by time formula.
Tara Garcîa Mathewson


The students calculated the speed of the boat by dropping a cracker into the water and measuring, with a stopwatch, how quickly the boat passed it. First, they figured out feet per second, then they converted that to feet per minute, feet per hour and, finally, nautical mile per hour.

They also learned about navigation, decoding a chart that showed land masses, water depths, buoy locations and more. And they toured the schooner, learning more about its history and how crews live at sea.

Students who participate in week-long or semester-long excursions go deeper into the curriculum, but the half-day trip Alexis and her peers took gave them a taste of Roseway.

Students learn about the information displayed on navigational charts aboard Roseway.
Tara Garcîa Mathewson


Monica McCallum, program coordinator onboard the schooner, said the five-day, full-day experience provides the best opportunity to experience the full curriculum, but she understands why schools can’t always spare the time.

Still, changing federal policy could help outdoor programs like World Ocean School gain traction in schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act is expected to give schools new freedom from the pressure of test-based accountability. States are developing new systems that will measure student performance beyond scores on standardized tests. Seven states will be able to pilot alternative assessment systems, considered the next generation of state tests that will assess performance tasks or use competency-based metrics, among other options.

Class time has been at a premium in the crunch to get students ready for standardized tests. But perhaps as schools figure out a new balance, a week on a sailboat or in the woods will become standard elements of the traditional school experience.

Roseway Captain Tom Ryan follows students aboard the 137-foot schooner in the Boston Harbor.
Tara Garcîa Mathewson


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Filed Under: K12
Top image credit: Tara Garcîa Mathewson