A whale of an assignment

Montessori students team up with museum to channel their inner whaling captains.

A gray and rainy Monday set the nautical tone for a group of Vineyard Montessori School students as they channeled their inner whaling captains for their “I Am the Captain Now” presentations at the Nathan Mayhew Schoolhouse.

“I Am the Captain Now” is a 15-unit class taught by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in which students become 19th century whaling captains of their own creation based on tales of real-life whalers. The students wrote and designed their own logbooks, and dressed in peacoats and old-fashioned dresses to take on their historic characters.

At the end of the unit, students put on a “living exhibit,” giving 3-minute monologues describing ambergris and spermaceti, and telling the history of their captain –– what their life was like, where they traveled, and the names of their ships. After the monologues, students took on the character of their captain and answered questions from parents and relatives.

The students learned about the whaling industry through “Whaling Ventures” by Jonas Peter Akins and Tom Nicholas and “O’er the Wide and Tractless Sea: Original Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt” by Michael P. Dyer. Several of the museum’s artifacts were studied, including journals, carvings of whalebone, and bookbinding tools.

Aquinnah tribal historian Linda Coombs came in to speak for the unit’s class on “Aquinnah Wampanoags and Their Relationship to Whales and Whaling,” and Sail Martha’s Vineyard marine biologist Kim Ulmer spoke during the “Marine Animal Behavior” class. Museum librarian Bow Van Riper also helped answer questions the students had.

Fifth grader Marysol Jurczyk became May Reed, a young whaling captain who owned her own ship and loved to sail around the ocean with her father and her crew.

Sixth graders Silas Stanek and Connor Graves became Silas Lee the VII and Noah Lee, two brother captains who “sometimes get along,” according to Connor. Silas said he enjoyed the journey his captain took from Martha’s Vineyard to Alaska, stopping at Cape Horn and Fiji along the way. Silas liked his captain’s tenacity, demanding his crew chase a whale even if it was far away or hard to get to.

Connor said it was too hard to choose his favorite thing about his captain, because there were so many. “I have the skill and ability to be the captain I am. I don’t want that to sound too egotistical, but I dreamed to one day be a captain and now I am,” Connor said while in character.

For Connor, the project was fun because it let him use his imagination. “It gave you the opportunity to be as creative as you wanted,” he said. “Your captain could be funny, crazy, or whatever you want.”

Museum education director Ann DuCharme organized the class and the student’s presentations. DuCharme, who teaches around 1,300 K-12 students each year from different Island schools, wanted to do something engaging for the Montessori students, whose curriculum is project- and student-based. Funding for the museum to teach the class came from a STARS (Students and Teachers working with Artists, Scientists, and Scholars) grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“They are amazing learners,” DuCharme said of the Montessori students. “You give them something, and they run with it.”