Fish go to school

Using the Derby as a teaching tool for homeschooling.

You might think that the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is all about catching fish. But not so for Moira Silva and her fifth-grade son Owen and first grader Rye. Frustrated by their experience with the virtual classroom Zoom format last spring, this family has launched a multifaceted homeschooling curriculum, with the current portion based on the Derby.

“It has been a really fun fall because we have more flexibility and whimsy than in the spring,” Silva said. “There is a more relaxed feeling. If everyone is interested in researching a topic, we can just stay with that for a long time rather than feeling like we have other deadlines or commitments. The kids both really disliked Zoom in the spring — how hard it was to interact, how the screens froze, etc. So, it’s a relief to give that aspect up.”

Silva said it is ultimately more work for her because she’s planning the lessons and tracking her sons’ progress. “I have experience as a middle and high school English teacher, but I’ve had to research the frameworks for grades 1 and 5 to figure out appropriate academic goals,” she said. It’s clearly a big undertaking and Silva has had to adapt her own schedule, but she says, “It’s well worth it if you judge by both what the kids are learning and the entire family experience.”

One basic tenet of quality education is to put learners at the center of their own learning, and this home school project is a good example. Silva explained a bit about the flexibility of the curriculum: “It’s an amazing topic. We’re being of service to our community by picking up trash on the beach, gaining interviewing skills by conducting some with fishing experts, creating art after looking at fish diagrams, understanding grade-level math by looking at the volume of fish one of our friends has tagged over the course of 30 years, discovering about Derby history through reading Ed Jerome’s book ‘An Amazing Story of the Vineyard’s Derby,’ and so much more. On their own, the kids approached the Derby committee about starting a contest to encourage all fishermen to pick up beach/jetty/pier litter.”

The children came up with the idea of also creating a “vlog,” as Owen calls it. “I wanted to share what I know about fishing and learn to make videos,” he says.

Owen and Rye are clearly taken with the approach and are continually adding to their video blog, aptly titled “One Last Cast.” Click on the highly attractive, well-illustrated website (https://sites.google.com/view/onelastcast/home) and you come to the homepage, which says, “Welcome to our Homeschool project! Here is where the Blues Brothers are sharing what they are learning during Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby of 2020.” The site is rich with “alluring” options. You can scroll through their “Projects,” “Biographies,” and “History of the Derby,” a photo-illustrated step-by-step “So you want to fish the Derby?” section, and “Identifying local fish,” which includes all kinds of fascinating details. I’m looking forward to the coming attraction: fish recipes — after they start catching a few more.

Part of the daily ritual is using the white board for their schedule. “Each day, we have fish-themed reading, writing, and math,” Silva says. “I try to make sure we have a physical, meditative, and an artist aspect each day too. We try to keep school hours from 9ish to 12ish. As a former reading teacher, I know how critical that is to children’s academic success and, luckily, they love to read so that part is easy.”

The family has taken different approaches in their Derby curriculum, such as doing their own fishing, keeping fishing logs, interviewing fishermen, reading fishing guides and novels, looking at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Derby exhibit, and more.

“Fishing is the best part because we can actually do what we’re learning about,” Owen says. “I also really like being able to learn more about fish ID and doing challenging fish-themed math word problems.”

“I love going out and not knowing what’s going to happen and where the big fish are,” Rye adds. He is gaining a rich experience, which includes: “Do not let the big one get away, fish tagging, new fishing spots, what it’s like to be a commercial fisherman, about the history of the Derby — the headquarters is the only building to survive the 1938 hurricane and it was moved about 100 feet across the parking lot. In the past, Derby winners won a lot in Gay Head.” But likewise, for Rye, it’s not just about fishing. “I want to help have people take care of the ocean and pick up beach trash,” he says.

Silva has some tips about homeschooling that include: “Pay attention to what interests your kids and focus on that. Make simple goals for your schooling and unit of study. Good teachers are really good listeners — pay attention to the feedback the kids are giving you. Keep it fun — the kids remind me when we need to take breaks to do crab walks, have dance parties, and so forth. Use our community resources — the library, the staff at Coop’s Tackle shop. Create an outlet where the kids can share their academic learning whether it’s a Facetime with grandparents, a vlog, etc. This creates motivation for learning.” Her overall goals are five-fold: “Love learning, enjoy being together, be able to work independently, become super readers, and serve the community.”

Her hope is that her two students remember two things: “that we had fun fishing and that just about anything can be a rich and complex topic.”