BATH — A cluster of students rushed from under a tent-turned-classroom on the grounds of the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. The sixth and seventh-graders began a round of dodgeball, weaving between the towering posts in the ground that mark the size of the USS Wyoming, built on the grounds of the museum, before a brass ship’s bell signals the beginning of a new lesson on the misty banks of the Kennebec River. These are the elements that mark an average morning in the Maine Maritime Museum’s alternative learning program.
This semester the museum is offering an alternative learning program for just 15 students due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions. Students are taught all day, five days per week by a state-certified teacher and cover core subjects including English, math, science and social studies, while weaving in maritime history, arts and culture whenever possible.
The education program is also following Regional School Unit 1’s heath and safety guidelines. Students must wear a face mask except when eating, sit at least three feet apart during lessons, and spend as much time outside as possible. Students have access to a separate bathroom, frequent hand washing is enforced and the museum has a plan in place in the event a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
“All of our curriculum was developed in line with state standards,” said Sarah Timm, manager of interpretation at the museum. “They’re learning the basics they would in school, just with a maritime lens.”
For example, students tested the water quality of the Kennebec River in science class and built wooden stools using both traditional boatbuilding practices and what they learned in geometry class.
“Some lessons feel like normal school and we get homework, but we also do things like building things in the boat shop and it feels like a field trip,” said Zoe Nicholson, 12, of Bath Middle School. “We just finished building our stools and next we’re going to build a toboggan.”
“I think I like this more than normal school because you get to work with your hands and learn about maritime history,” added Oscar Gallant, 11, of Woolwich Central School.
Luke Milardo, education and volunteer coordinator, said he’s looking forward to studying ships’ logs from the museum’s collection for English class because students will step into the shoes of people who sailed around the world in Bath-built ships. This lesson will take place while students can hear the clanging of steel echo down the river and watch towering ships be constructed just down the river at Bath Iron Works.
“BIW is a constant backdrop for us, so while we’re looking at historical materials, there’s this context of knowing that this is still happening,” said Milardo. “Maine’s maritime history is alive and we’re engaging with it. They’re learning just because something was written a couple hundred years ago doesn’t mean it’s not relevant today.”
Alternative learning programs can be a useful teaching asset, especially at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has turned traditional learning on its head and every school district has a different plan for mixing in-person and remote learning, said Janet Fairman, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute and an education professor at the University of Maine in Orono.
“These are unusual times and we all have to pitch in and help our young people stay engaged,” said Fairman. “These kinds of programs are needed to help kids connect with their peers and get excited about learning. It certainly can’t do any harm.”
Fairman said alternative learning programs are typically used to engage with students who struggle to learn in a traditional classroom setting, but she suspects the number of students who could benefit from a program such as the Maine Maritime Museum’s is only increasing.
“This past spring we saw students weren’t tuning into Zoom classes or turning in homework, and this wasn’t just students who previously struggled academically,” she said. “If different organizations roll up their sleeves and pitch in to keep students engaged, excited and learning, we won’t see as big a deficit as we might otherwise.”
Regardless of whether their child struggled with traditional school during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents of students in the Maine Maritime Museum program raved about the changes they’ve seen in their children since beginning the program.
“He comes home happy every day and he’s learning so much about our history and how it’s related to US history,” said Leslie Gallant, Oscar Gallant’s mother and a kindergarten teacher at Dike Newell School. “He has so much to share every day and he’s proud of his work and his learning, and as a mom and a teacher, that’s all I can ask for.”
Mari Eosco, mother of one student in the program, said she knows her son is getting “a more well-rounded experience” than he’d be getting at home through his school’s part-time online learning program, which he struggled with last spring.
“I support public school 100%, but the online learning didn’t go well for us last year, but through this program, he has been outside, in a workshop, on a boat and not in front of a screen,” she said. “He’ll remember this when he’s my age.”
“At a time when everyone is struggling to adapt to the pandemic, it’s great to have a program that we can see is helping the community,” said Timm. “While this is just a small group of kids, we’re able to maintain a connection with the community during a time when the community is isolated. That’s what brings me to work everyday, knowing we’re making a difference for these families.”