Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Thoughts on Teaching

One of my hobbies has been sailboats.   Having finished my freshman year at college I returned home for the summer with no job prospects and so my uncle gave me his Dyer Dink to refurbish and fix up.  It was interesting work and afterwards I was allowed to take it out into the estuary of Rye, New York on Long Island Sound.  I learned to sail by mistake after mistake.....and more mistakes.  One mistake taught me about tides after I had to drag the little sailing dinghy back to shore over thick gooey gray mud and then I had to hose off the dinghy as well as myself.  It was a summer of learning--how to refurbish a wooden dinghy and how to sail.  Ever since that time I have been hooked on the sport of sailing from just chasing the wind on Bellingham Bay to racing to cruising up the coast on long passages toward Alaska and gunkholing through the San Juan Islands (WA), the latter my favorite sailing activity.   Although I am pushing my eighth decade, I still enjoy the motion of the boat, working the wind on the sails and hearing the water gush by.  Total satisfaction.

Toward the end of my teaching career at the university, I started teaching sailing, cruising and seamanship for local boat chartering companies.  Mostly weekend assignments but in the summer sometimes a four or five day charter with several couples on board a sailboat.

This blog has been focused on the teaching of mathematics, reading and writing, social studies and all the good subjects that we find in a normal public and most private K-12 schools.  But what about teaching sailing--is it a "recreational sport" the same as "hard knowledge?"  What sort of a teacher does this business of sailing need for success?

Let's take a moment to analyze the situation.  For the most part the students are self motivating--they have paid good money for the class and they want to learn.  For the most part!  However, we are working internal motivation.  No one has forced them into this situation.  Welllll,..... maybe.  The classes are small, normally four to six people at most so there is no hiding in the class.   But here is the grabber--many of my classes were husband and wife couples....which sets up a different atmosphere in teaching and learning.

I found that in many instances the husband and his best friend decide that they want to learn to sail so that they can charter a boat in the Bahamas.   The two wives aren't sure about all this but are willing to go along with the activity.  The Bahamas sound good to them thinking resort, spa, sun and sun bathing and good food served to them.  The guys have a different dream of learning to sail from port to port having their wives fix the food and help out on the sailing.  This is the situation that a teacher like myself finds at the onset.

I have to teach safety as I teach the two couples about the boat.  "This is the pointy end called a bow..." and "this is a winch (not a wench) and it turns in this direction.  All winches turn the same way."  Nomenclature can only go so far and there comes a time when you have to take the boat out of the slip and out to clear water to sail.  Actually, getting the boat ready to sail is not a difficult task, but getting the new crew ready to sail a bit more of a problem.  It's not hard and soon the sails are up and we sailing!  As the boat heels (leans over from the breeze) I can sense the tension in all of them--the guys had not thought about this in their dreams and the gals hadn't thought about it at all.  There are several degrees of uncomfortableness found here.  I cannot proceed until everyone is feeling good about themselves.  I'm dealing mostly with the affective domain here, receiving my instructions, responding to my directions and valuing what all are doing--steering, working the sails, feeling the boat and the wind.  Hopefully by the end of the first day I might get them to organize all this knowledge into some sort of a whole which they can use on the morrow for further learning.

A sensitive area in the teaching of sailing at this point is the relationship between husband and wife.  Guy wants to tell Gal what to do and I have to step in and take charge.  This is scary stuff for some women and I have to give them a chance to absorb the entire feeling.  Normally I do this by getting each person do some task (steering, handling lines, winching, moving the traveler, etc) and as we sail I ask each of them to tell me what they did and how did it go.  I once told this blog I wasn't very good with the Psycho-Motor Domain and I'm still not on top of it.  But as this point in my teaching of sailing I demonstrate some activity and then have them imitate what I have done.  Lowest level of the domain.  My next step is to get them to manipulate that task so that they feel comfortable with it.  I suppose the next level would be to do the task and make improvements without my help.  After a turn with each learning station, the crew rotates so that all have a chance to do all the basics in sailing.

In any event, I have to be sure that the women do the task themselves without supervision by their husbands.  This is an observation but in the twenty-five years of teaching sailing a number of women have actually done many of the tasks better then their husbands....they gain a feel for the boat that the guys don't get.  I also think the fellows are under pressure to do well and they somehow start to compete with each other.

I've had a few women who have done well in learning to sail but have never really enjoyed it.  When the class was over, they just wanted to go home.  But the majority of the gals have done well--keep this a secret--but many did better then their husbands.  I've had one husband not take to sailing at all.  He owned his own boat but he didn't really like to sail.  He is the only one that didn't pass my course...not sure why.  But his wife was a natural.

If I had my way, I think it would be smart to have all women crews taught by a woman.  And I would love to be the preverbal fly on the wall and watch what they do.  I suspect the success rate would be increased in that they would know more in less time.  Just my intuition.

One of the joys of teaching sailing is that there is no end to what you can learn.  Once you've had some success in pushing a boat around with wind, you tend to want to do more.   Some get into the area of navigation and spend much time plotting how to get from A to B including the tides and currents.  Some graduates want to race!  Some of my students have gone on the buy a boat and to continue in the sport with great satisfaction.  Others have gone mountain climbing.  Hmmmmm.

No, I don't teach sailing anymore--I want to go sailing myself.  I want to handle the lines and steer and enjoy the wind in the sails.  Hello Mole--how are you?

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