If you want to use the Chesapeake Bay in your lesson plans, you have to experience it first: on the deck of a skipjack in the brutal heat of an August day or on tiny Fox Island in Tangier Sound.
You have to hear bay troubadour Tom Wisner sing of the rivers Susquehanna, Wicomico, Severn and Nanticoke, and listen to Earl White, the 83-year-old mate on the Stanley Norman, tell of his days oystering aboard the graceful, 63-foot-long "drudge" boat to get a sense of the history and lore. And you have to get a "bay shower," a bucket of water pulled from the Chesapeake and dumped over your head to cool you off.
So nine teachers and two principals boarded the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Stanley Norman at City Dock in Annapolis yesterday for the first day of a weeklong program in which they will dredge for oysters, set crab pots, explore the marshes of Smith, Tangier and Fox islands, and hear from scientists, watermen and others connected with the bay as part of a teacher training program.
The teacher training sessions are part of the foundation's $1.8 million Bay Schools Project, a three-year program to use the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues to teach math, reading, science and social studies. Maryland contributes about $525,000 a year to the foundation for education programs, about $84,000 of which goes to the Bay Schools Project.
"We're getting teachers to use the outdoors to teach," said Jennifer Hulford, the project coordinator. "Instead of using a textbook, we'll say we're going to add up our budget to see how much money we need for our butterfly garden. Kids can start in their schoolyards and go to their local streams that are connected to the bay."
The project, operating in nine schools in Harford, Baltimore and St. Mary's counties and Baltimore City, stems from a 1995 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which found that students performed better in schools in which environmental issues were integrated into the curriculum, and had fewer discipline problems and increased enthusiasm for learning.
The program, the first of its kind in the country, is not without risks, said Don Baugh, education director for the bay foundation. Educators who are under pressure to improve test scores might be unwilling to take a chance on an unproven product.
"The risky part is the way principals in America have their jobs on the line if their schools don't produce," he said. "We know schools are going to improve, but until we have a study completed, we can't say it for sure."
And even if the principal is supportive, "there's a lot of resistance from ... more traditional teachers," said Alana Hoffman, a special education teacher from Morrell Park Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore who was on yesterday's trip.
Frequently, the resistance is from teachers who have been whipsawed by changing educational fads and view the environmental project as one more, said Suzanne Meyer-Seymour, another special education teacher from Morrell Park.
Yesterday's session took on a decidedly spiritual tone.
Before the boat left the dock, Wisner unrolled a huge, laminated relief map of the United States to show the teachers "how incredibly unique this Chesapeake is."
"You look at the whole country, and there's nothing like our bay. That gets right to the heart of the matter. It's up to you to get to the heart of the child. That's a big job.
"You can teach here," he said, tapping the side of his head. "But you gotta teach here." He tapped his chest over his heart.
Wisner's songs often use Biblical turns of phrase, and he quoted from the Biblical story of creation: "In the beginning was the word ... ."
White picked up the phrase as he told of oystering. "In the beginning, when I first started this ... ," he said, fiddling with the line on a dredge that was propped against a rail of the boat.
Once under way, Capt. Dave Gelenter used the skipjack's push boat to pick his way through the boats moored in Annapolis Harbor before he turned the nose of the boat into the wind and prepared his "crew" to raise the Stanley Norman's huge mainsail. The teachers jumped to take off the canvas cover, freed the sail from its ties and lined up along the boat's port rail as if they were a tug-of-war team.
"When I say heave, you say ... ," called White. The teachers answered with a meek, "Ho."
"Remember," White tried again, "the louder you holler, the harder you pull. Heave."
"Ho," the teachers called back.
White told the teachers of a time when the water was so clear you could see oysters on the bottom and crabs swimming under the boat, when you spent all day dredging and the "market boat came alongside to take your oysters off" or a police boat came alongside to make sure your oysters were of legal size.
He pushed a small dredge over the side and recalled bringing up anchors, pocketbooks, eyeglasses, even an outboard that apparently had fallen from someone's boat. And he finished each section of his story, "That's the way life was on this Chesapeake Bay."
Wisner, a Cornell University ecologist turned singer and songwriter, delivered a lesson of music and sermon. He sang chants of African-American fishermen who hauled nets of menhaden in Virginia, and his own songs based on Native American chants, passed out poems and talked of the lore of the Chesapeake.
"It's that lore that's at the heart of the people," he said. "And one of our jobs as people who teach in this place is to lift up that lore in our children."