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Building Boats, Confidence, and English

Six middle school ESOL students, taught by Mary Libby and Geoff McKonly, learn personal responsibility, communication, diligence, abstract thinking, constructive group dynamics, and self-confidence as well as English in the Marine Education Initiative. See Leona Mason's Out of the Box article, "A Career Fair Brings the Real World into the ESL Classroom," Essential Teacher, June 2006, pp. 28-31.

After school, six U.S. middle-school English learners travel with their teacher via public transportation from North Philadelphia to the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (http:// in South Philadelphia. For the two hours they spend there, the students' task is to build a boat that floats.

Tangible Processes, Tangible Outcomes

The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory's primary focus is facilitating access to the skills students need for lifelong success: personal responsibility, communication, diligence, abstract thinking, constructive group dynamics, and self-confidence. These skills are developed and reinforced through a series of tangible processes with tangible outcomes. Within the task of building a boat lies the inherent and unspoken goal of fostering the qualities mentioned above.

Through the Marine Education Initiative, Philadelphia youth have been building boats for the past ten years. This group consists of six preemergent to basic English language learners who speak Spanish as their first language. All but one have recently relocated from either the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. The other student was born into a monolingual Puerto Rican family in North Philadelphia, yet after eight years in the school district, he continues to struggle with English. His not uncommon plight is a testament to the state of bilingual education in the School District of Philadelphia and the difficulty of learning a second language.

We, the teachers of the boat-building class, are the students' classroom teacher, who is also a member of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory's board, and the executive director of this nonprofit organization. We are friends and colleagues who push and constantly inspire each other’s dedication to studying and implementing experiential learning in our teaching. We both speak English as our first language, one of us speaks French as a second language, and the other speaks Spanish.

Connecting and Relating to the English They Will Need

The students began preparing for their experience in the shop many months ago. In class, we helped them read, measure, and talk about boat plans. We then introduced them to the specific tools and registers of boat building, after which they completed a research project that further explored the tools, materials design, and process of building a wooden boat.

Though their goal is to build a boat, the students are connecting and relating to the English they will need to pursue this activity. That is, they are learning the English necessary to complete the next step in the building process or to understand the use of a new tool in much the same sheltered way that they learned their first language: with the intention not of becoming proficient at speaking, reading, or writing but of successfully completing a task. In short, we have designed a kind of ideal prototype for English for specific purposes or content-based language instruction.

Experiencing Life in English

Making a piece of wood fit into a complex curve with a bevel tests a student's ability to follow directions, apply new techniques, and work toward a goal that can initially only be imagined, not seen. From the very beginning of the project, the students found themselves in a new environment having new experiences. They rode the subway and went to a different part of the city for the first time. They traveled to a world very different from their own, a world where the primary language is English.

Though their proficiency in English varies widely, they are on a level playing field as boat builders. The students need to help each other: those who don't understand all of the instructions in English need the help of those who do. Conversely, the student who best understands how to solve a problem can't always communicate it in English, so there is a constant interplay among the students; the trading of strengths creates a powerful interactive dynamic.

For these students, everyday life plays out in their North Philadelphia community, where they are immersed in Spanish. Building a boat is an opportunity for them to experience life, outside school, in English.

Mary Libby ( teaches ESOL at Roberto Clemente Middle School, and Geoff McKonly ( is the executive director of the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, in the United States.

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