Education Funding

Living Lessons: Chesapeake Bay Becomes a Classroom

By Megan Drennan — September 30, 1998 6 min read
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A classroom is in the eye of the beholder.

Here in Baltimore, it can even be the galley of a World War II-era ship, where making a breakfast of scrambled eggs and pancakes can be a math lesson and doing the dishes afterward becomes an exercise in cooperative learning.

On board the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, 12-year-old Marven Madden hoists the dumbwaiter heavy with tin plates from the mess below. He passes the dishes to Elliot Williams, 12, who washes them with military precision. Both boys are spending one of the last weeks of summer with the Living Classrooms Foundation.

“I feel like I’m in a home when I’m washing up and cooking. It feels so good,” Elliot says. He and Marven spent the night on the Taney, a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The boys, part of a group of 30 students visiting from Newark, N.J., are just two of the thousands of students this year who will participate in one of the Living Classrooms Foundation’s 35 educational programs. Since 1985, the Baltimore-based foundation has used the Chesapeake Bay and the land adjoining it as a living textbook for the teaching of math and science. “We work with every kind of kid possible, from the roughest kids to the brightest to the suburban kids who get lost in the shuffle,” says Stephen Bountress, the foundation’s director of shipboard education.

In the process, Living Classrooms tries to inject greater excitement into education, by liberating students and teachers from their desks and chalkboards for a view of the world from the deck of a sailing schooner or through the lens of a microscope. For many students, the approach works.

Living Classrooms works with students from all over the United States and makes a special effort to reach out to urban children.

The New Jersey students are affiliated with the New Communities Corp., a nonprofit organization in Newark that offers housing, adult education, and other life-skills programs to families in transition. A grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation paid for their Living Classrooms experience.

“If these boys were at home right now, they wouldn’t be up this early. They sleep until noon or one,” says Donald O’Connor, a youth advocate with New Communities and one of the group’s chaperones. “Here, they get up early and look forward to the next day.”

For More Information:

Living Classrooms Foundation programs are open to all schools, community-based organizations, and educational groups. Programs are primarily designed for students in grades 4-12.

Foundation staff members work with teachers to focus appropriate lessons to complement a school’s curriculum. Teachers receive materials to prepare students to their visit and also to follow up after their Living Classrooms experience. The foundation also offers professional development for teachers on how to bring experiential learning into the classroom.

Contact information for available programs, costs, and schedules: Living Classrooms Foundation, 802 S. Caroline St., Baltimore, MD, 21202; (410) 685-0295; fax (410) 752-8433;
Web site:;

Old Ships, New Lives

On a hot, overcast morning in late August, Hurricane Bonnie has forced an alteration in the classroom assignments. Instead of sailing on the sleek schooner Lady Maryland, the New Communities students will learn about the Chesapeake Bay on board the reliable Mildred Belle.

In her former life, the 50-foot Belle motored along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, buying oysters from fishermen and watermelons and vegetables from farmers, and then bringing them into the city for sale at its markets.

This afternoon, she will carry 10 sulky teenagers from Newark out into the nooks and crannies of Baltimore Harbor to study water quality, navigation, hurricanes, marine life, and maritime history.

“I refuse to wear a life jacket,” announces Ki-shon Wright, 16, as the crew readies the group for departure. Capt. Dave Nauheim reminds the students about the importance of safety, especially with a hurricane pounding the North Carolina shore and heading toward Maryland.

Class begins as soon as the crew casts off from the pier. On deck, Ki-shon and his classmates listen to first mate Ian Nelson describe the role of African-Americans in shaping Baltimore’s nautical history. As they glide past a decrepit brick warehouse, Mr. Nelson tells them that it was once part of a thriving shipyard owned by a black man named Isaac Myers. Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, who had earlier found work in Baltimore caulking ships, served on the board of directors.

The teenage audience is not impressed. The Belle‘s crew decides to alter its academic course--it’s time to break out the nets and go fishing.

“Who’s the youngest person here? The youngest one on board brings us our luck when we go fishing,” Mr. Nelson tells them.

“LaToya’s the youngest,” someone calls out.

Smiling, shy LaToya Goode, 14, walks to the starboard side of the boat, where the first mate holds a long, dark-green fishing net. “OK, LaToya, do you know how you’re going to bring us luck?” She shakes her head no. Mr. Nelson holds up the narrow mouth of the net for everyone to see, then calls out, “By smelling the cod end of the net!”

LaToya’s classmates shriek and yell with glee. She grimaces. As if that’s not bad enough, the veteran sailor continues: “You have to sniff it loud enough so that everyone can hear. Otherwise, we won’t have any luck.”

After LaToya’s satisfactory sniff, five students grab hold of the net, and toss it out into the harbor. Five minutes later, another group hauls the net on board, and everyone scrambles to see their catch--several small fish, a crab, a clump of jellyfish, a few anchovies, and some brown muck. “Last week, we caught an outboard engine,” the captain says.

Lorraine Andrews, the program director, divides the students into three groups, each with its own tub of water and sea creatures to study. Using a prepared guide of questions, the students work with crew members to identify their catch.

“I think this one has a dorsal fin, not a ventral fin,” observes Tiffany Green, 16. She lifts the small fish out of the water and cradles it in her hand. Gently, she strokes it, her long pink fingernails sliding over its silver belly. For a time, Tiffany sheds her city attitude and becomes a child again, curious to learn.

“The bay is like the kids we see--there is incredible diversity,” Ms. Andrews says. “Some parts are so alive, others can be scary.”

From Sea to Shore

The Lady Maryland was the foundation’s first living classroom. Built in 1985, the two-masted sailing vessel is the only remaining example of a “pungy” schooner. The pungy was designed for speed and stability in the Chesapeake’s shallow waters. In fair weather, she makes an idyllic platform for learning, with students hauling up the sails and taking turns at the helm. Two sloops, the Sigsbee and Minnie V, round out the fleet. Along with the Mildred Belle, these floating classrooms host more than 12,000 students annually between March and November.

But the ships are only one part of Living Classrooms’ extensive campus. The foundation also sponsors land-based programs that include stream-ecology treks at Maryland’s 232-acre Howard County Conservancy and spawning baby oysters in the aquaculture lab at the foundation’s new Weinberg Center in east Baltimore. The center doubles as an official U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-quality site, where students become budding meteorologists for a day.

The foundation also sponsored a boat in the famous Whitbread Round the World Race. Chessie Racing, named after the Chesapeake’s version of the Loch Ness sea monster, sailed around the world for nine months, returning to Baltimore in late April. Throughout the grueling race, Maryland students tracked Chessie‘s progress on the Internet, learning about navigation, buoyancy, weather, and trade routes along the way.

As Tiffany and her classmates discovered today, there are no monsters in Baltimore’s harbor, just some small fish with long, scientific names.

“The kids have learned a lot here and enjoyed it--despite themselves,” said LeAndria Wall, another New Communities chaperone. “It’s a good chance for them to get away from home and see something really different.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1998 edition of Education Week as Living Lessons: Chesapeake Bay Becomes a Classroom


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