By Sarah Rubenstein

In Port Townsend, Washington, learning through a sense of place is at the heart of our school district. Our small rural district, in a waterfront community, is three years into a five-year initiative that will transform it into a place-based, maritime-themed district—connecting all subjects and grade levels to the experiences of the local maritime community.

The focus of the pre-K through 12th-grade initiative is student engagement through rigorous place-based projects. Students’ connection to our community as a context for learning gives them a strong foundation from which to launch.

This initiative came about through a visionary partnership with the Northwest Maritime Center (NWMC). The NWMC is a local non-profit with a mission to educate about maritime life, based  on the idea that “the sea is the best teacher we know.” The Port Townsend School Board adopted the vision, and the NWMC committed to raise $750,000 to support this initiative for 5 years. The funds support a part-time project director, teacher professional development, and additional teacher time for curriculum development.

Key Implementation Strategies

Through this initiative we have focused on teacher professional learning, building community partnerships and teacher-led curriculum development. We launched our initiative with paid summer sessions, during which teachers learned about place-based learning and developed their first projects.

In these sessions, we invited key community partners to join teachers. Through this collaborative time, teachers became more knowledgeable about community resources, and community partners became engaged in our place-based projects. It is akin to matchmaking: When teachers are building a history project, we take them on field trip to the Jefferson County Historical Society archives, where they take a tour and meet the archivists. Through this initiative, we have developed more than 70 community partners including: Port Townsend Marine Science Center, North Olympic Salmon Coalition, Sound Experience and the city’s Mountain View Pool.

Teachers have led curriculum development. They have permission and encouragement to experiment, along with the time to collaborate and develop projects. In addition to summer professional development, teachers participate in monthly sessions to deepen their understanding of place-based learning and to collaborate on projects. Every teacher has one “teaching-release” day, when that teacher collaboratively plans with fellow teachers and community partners.

Each year teachers build new projects, improve the projects they created in previous years, and throw projects “overboard” that no longer seem to be a good fit. This flexibility and willingness to experiment, reflect and refine has been key to getting more teachers comfortable with project-based learning.

Now, in the third year of this initiative, our teachers are becoming experts in the foundations of place-based learning and use many collaboration tools. We adapted project planning tools from the Buck Institute that allow teams of teachers to collaborate using Google Docs. Teachers show each other new uses for technology to support place-based projects. These range from recording student thinking and reflection in the Seesaw app to using Google Classrooms to manage stages of projects.

Maritime and Place-Based Learning in Action

In first and second grade, our students meet social studies standards by studying our town and community. They visit a 100-year-old schooner, Adventuress, to study it as a model of a town. Students examine how a ship has many of the important components of a town, from a waste management system to a government.

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In fourth grade, students work with a biologist at a local tribe to learn about fisheries and riparian habitat restoration, which are foundational to the culture and economic life of area tribes in the Salish Sea. In 8th grade, our students complete the “Salish Sea to Olympics Challenge” program, where they test water quality across the Salish Sea, advocate for clean water, and gain skills to help them transition to high school. The teachers connect with diverse community partners so that students have multiple experiences throughout the year to learn alongside organizations involved in water-quality monitoring and regulation.

At the high school level, we have developed a Maritime Academy where students gain skills in craftsmanship, creativity, engineering and vessel operations. These career and technical education classes give students entry level experience in a broad range of maritime industry professions, which are an important sector of living-wage jobs in Washington State’s economy. Students in these classes have a chance to build a baidarka (a traditional Aleutian kayak made with a wood frame and canvas cover), design and build a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), or learn to sail.

In addition, core academic classes embrace maritime and place-based learning. For example, in a high school English class, students are reading John Steinbeck and learning about the Western Flyer, the boat on which Steinbeck spent a year in the Sea of Cortez. It is currently under restoration in the Port Townsend shipyard.

Through the work of the Maritime Discovery Schools Initiative, learning in our schools has taken on context and meaning. Students understand what they are learning since we build into the curriculum the answer to “Why am I learning this?” When we ask students what they like about place-based learning, they say they like helping the community and getting out of the classroom to learn.

Our teachers say that developing the community partnerships and the time to collaborate with colleagues on projects are some of the most valuable aspects of the place-based learning emphasis. Our parents and community see value in the meaningful learning that students are doing and are proud of the ways that our schools reflect the values of our community.

Our local chamber of commerce now hosts the annual welcome event for our new teachers because the association sees itself as a key partner with the schools in reaching the shared goal of attracting and retaining young families, entrepreneurs and professionals to our community. In Port Townsend, we see that a thriving, vibrant school system with meaningful community connections is key to building a strong community. Our maritime and place-based learning initiative is creating just that.

Sarah Rubenstein is the Project Director at Maritime Discovery Schools

This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education, see:


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