Closer Readings Commentary

Aboard the Charles W. Morgan

Betsy Leahy has served as third grade teacher and department head at Shady Hill School for almost 30 years. She received her B.A. in Environmental Biology from Middlebury College and her M. Ed. from Tufts University.

Betsy embodies the power of experiential learning by implementing a year-long study of whales and whaling, which includes a mock whaling voyage around the globe. Her third grade students become familiar with not only the mechanics of whaling but also the social and political climate of the time, the customs and practices of other whaling cultures, and the diversity aboard the New England ships.

As a 38th Voyager, she plans to supplement and enhance her year-long whaling unit with the sights and sounds of her leg of the voyage. Betsy has captured life aboard the Charles W. Morgan with photographs, video, and audio recordings that she will weave into her curricular unit.

Betsy offers us these reflections on the 38th Voyage in this Teacher’s Log, dated July 10, 2014.

What an incredible privilege and extraordinary opportunity it was to sail on the Charles W. Morgan this week!

How many teachers have lived, smelled, touched, and experienced in a deeply visceral way the subject matter they teach? This is the opportunity Mystic Seaport offered 38th Voyagers, an NEH-funded project. For me, as a teacher of whaling history, it was the most profound professional development that I imagine I will ever undergo.

For close to two decades, I have played the part of a whaling captain in my third grade classroom, where students engage in a full-year study of whales and whaling and participate in a mock whaling voyage around the globe. As our Central Subject, it is a truly immersive experience for students and teachers.

Each student invents a character to portray, weaving family history together with historical facts of the time period. I am the captain of our “ship,” Arabella. Part of each day is spent engaged in this study as we enact our voyage. As the captain, I teach my crew the ways of whalers and introduce them to the layout of the ship, the sail plan, the techniques of hunting and processing whales, and the tools of the trade. My student-whalers need to become familiar with the social and political climate of the time, the customs and practices of other whaling cultures, and the diversity aboard the New England ships. This is complex material for eight year olds, but we are better able to understand the time period, the reasons that impelled men to sign on the ships, the hierarchical power and pay structures, and the conditions the whalers tolerated when we put ourselves in the whalers’ boots as we play-act our voyage.

While I have done a lot of reading, studied historical images, visited museums, watched nautical movies, and learned the language of whaling as best I can, nothing compares to the night and day I spent aboard the Charles W. Morgan.

This week I was lucky enough to have:

  • Tossed and turned in my tiny bunk in the stuffy air of the forecastle surrounded by restless others;
  • Awakened to the sound of feet moving on the deck overhead at sunrise;
  • Smelled the pine tar that infuses every inch of the ship;
  • Listened to the call and response of the mates and crew as the officers gave commands and the deckhands echoed;
  • Felt the bulk and heft of the ship as it plowed through the water;
  • Watched sails set and struck and taken a turn wrestling with the helm;
  • Climbed aloft; raised a whaleboat on its davits; hauled on lines;
  • Hung over the rail and observed our bow wave; and
  • Simply sat on deck listening to the water and wind as we sailed through Cape Cod Bay.

As 38th Voyagers, we must complete a project inspired by our trip on the Morgan. My plan is to create a virtual tour of the whaling ship using augmented reality technology. I will use the many photos and video I collected above and below deck to bring the ship into our classroom.

This will, of course, enhance my students' understanding of the layout and size of the ship, and its sails and rigging. But it is my first-hand observations, gut reactions and multi-sensory memories from the Morgan that I will also bring to the classroom, making the students’ second-hand experiences all the more authentic—and this is of course what every history teacher seeks for her students.