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Blue Week Celebrations, Lisbon, Portugal June 2015 – Part One Blue School Tour

At the beginning of June this year, after Pearson College students left for home, I took a brief hiatus from Race Rocks Ecological Reserve for a trip to Lisbon, Portugal. I am very grateful to the EU Horizon 2020 AORAC Project for the support and logistical know-how in making this trip such a stimulating and jam-packed learning quest. From a personal perspective, the trip was intended to further develop my understanding of European ocean literacy efforts, improve my skills as a champion for ocean literacy and help contribute a Canadian perspective on transatlantic ocean literacy. I participated in five ocean literacy activities in Lisbon and I would like to share some of what I learned here, via my blog.

Prior to the trip, I had been blogging on the racerocks.com website daily, for several months, so I thought it would be easy to whip off a blog covering the five activities that I was involved with in Lisbon. After all it was only five days worth of blogging.

  1. Visit to a Portuguese Blue School
  2. Meeting of the International Advisory Group to the Horizon 2020, Blue Growth, Sea Change Project
  3. Workshop on Transatlantic Ocean Literacy (TOL)
  4. Public Forum on Ocean Literacy at Blue Week Business Forum
  5. Day trip and launch of the small vessel West (Educational Passages) with the Portuguese Navy, Ciencia Viva and two middle school classes.

When it came time to write the blog, the task seemed daunting and it took some time to reflect on and attempt to share what I had learned. Part of the time delay was due to being very involved organizing Canada’s First Conference on Ocean Literacy, working at Race Rocks and attending other ocean literacy workshops and events. By August, I realized that it might be better to break up the Portuguese experiences and write separate pieces, so here the first instalment.


Visit to a Portuguese Blue School

Portugal is a leader in ocean literacy. It adopted the Ocean Literacy principles years ago, adapted the ocean literacy conceptual framework to fit Portuguese perspectives and has moved beyond science, to include geography, culture and other subjects into a particular Portuguese brand of ocean literacy. Portugal also has designated Blue Schools and I was lucky enough to be part of a small international group that was privileged to have a tour of one these schools.

The tour participants came from the United Kingdom, Sweden/Belgium, Portugal, United States and Canada and are all involved in the Sea Change project, which I will focus on in the next blog instalment. Blue Schools are of real interest to the Sea Change project, which hopes to empower and transform the relationship between EU citizens and the sea. The project is considering a Blue School model as an initiative that could empower long-term educational change potential.

The school that we were going to tour, Colégio Pedro Arrupe offers programs from pre-school right through high school to 1750 students with a staff of 140 teachers. It is a private school located near the shore, on the outskirts of Lisbon. About thirty percent of the schools in Portugal are private and this school is one of two, private, “Blue Schools” in Portugal: the other is located in the city of Porto.

Developed and run by lay professionals, the school was designed from the outset to be a Blue School. The school building and the philosophy are reflective of the ocean, which is at the heart of the Portuguese people and of the educational thinking of its namesake, Pedro Arrupe. Arrupe was a Jesuit educator who spent much of his adult life in Japan. The ocean is incorporated into the building’s design from the foundation up and includes large expanses of glass block, representing the ocean and water and massive amounts of cork, embodying Portugal, including Portuguese travel by sea. Driving by, you might not notice at first glance, that this school has a really special treatment of the ocean or understand how important the ocean is to the learning that goes on inside and beyond its walls. It was a highlight for our group to be able see inside and to get a sense of the school firsthand from those who know it best.

We arrived in the parking lot by taxi, after a bit of a cobblestone, taxi version of the grand prix from downtown Lisbon. The glare of the Mediterranean sun dominated as we looked around for the entry. As our eyes adjusted to the cool, shaded and lofty entranceway to this modern school, the first thing I noticed was a large and low aquarium stretching along one wall. Low enough so that the youngest students can enjoy it and beautifully maintained in keeping with the school Director’s goal “to inspire students to fall in love with the sea”.

We wondered what it was all about as we gazed up at artwork that extolled Arrupe’s motivational, educational philosophy and took in the seemingly, serene school scene around us. Then we met the gracious and articulate, (English-speaking) Pedagogical Director of the School, Ana Mira Vaz. A school is a reflection of its leadership and there was no doubt from the moment we met Ana that this school had an exceptional leader. She welcomed us and took us under her wing for a tour that focused first on the younger classes, followed by a high school student and teacher-centric, round-table meeting in the boardroom. We had a chance to learn directly from teachers and students in action, to see student work and to learn about the school’s project-based learning, professional development and institutional collaborations. We left with a better understanding of how this particular Blue School incorporates the sea into the hearts and minds of its students.

The following quotations come from the report on the tour schedule given to us prior to the visit. “The sea and maritime issues have been major references in the educational project of Colégio Pedro Arrupe, which explicitly includes the multiple dimensions of the sea – biological, physical, geological, economical, historical and geographical – in its curricula. Learning about the sea is mostly experiential and based on creative teamwork. Activities take place in real or simulated environments, inside and outside the classroom, using the school equipment (swimming pool, water surfaces and leisure boats) and taking advantage of the local context – Parque das Naçoes’ marina and Nautical Club. Contact with the marine environment extends to collaboration with the Sea Cadets Club, a project of the Portuguese Navy supported by the Navy Museum and out to the sea on board the Vera Cruz caravel and NTM Creoula.

The work of Colégio Pedro Arrupe has been acknowledged by policy makers in the field of sea curricula and ocean literacy. Colégio Pedro Arrupe has been supported by the Task Group for the Extension of the Continental Shelf and by the Sea Kit, and is now participating in the EU Maritime Action Plan.” This is obviously a blue school with many shades of blue both nationally and internationally. We were delighted to head off on our tour.

The preschool rooms were bright, busy and productive spaces located in a separate section of the school. One of the first primary classes we visited was playing a structured predator prey game as an arithmetic learning tool. As we came into the class the students were engaged, and enjoying the game. The Director asked the teacher to continue so that we could observe and the children relished sharing their lesson and their learning with us, some even impressing us with their ability to do math in English as well as Portuguese.

As we moved through the hallway there was a mass exodus happening from a couple of other classes due to a frog sighting in the green area outside. The classes had serendipitously headed out on an amphibian expedition. The group washed out of the building like a wave carried by the sheer enthusiasm of the students and obvious passion of the teachers. I hoped the frog had taken cover, off the playground in the sanctuary of the cool green area, away from strong sun and little feet. Whether they found the frog or not, I understood the thrill of sharing such a sighting and the spontaneous learning connections that could be made between aquatic creatures, caring people, healthy wetlands, estuaries and the open sea.

While they were outside, we had the chance to see their classrooms, results of class projects and individual portfolios. I was impressed with the specifically ocean-oriented learning going on at this school through an interdisciplinary mix of visual arts, language arts, science, geography, history and culture. The real highlight for me was to sit down with students and staff and hear from them personally in a presentation and debate on sea curriculum initiatives..

The boardroom was a comfortable area with lots of room for the ten of us. The three boys at the table were all in their senior year and thinking about next steps for college and university. Two of them had been at the school since their early years and the third had joined later. It was an opportunity for them to reflect back on key experiences that they wanted to share with us. The teacher at the table had taught both primary and elementary. I was really impressed by the genuine, respectful and open relationships between the students, teacher and director. We all introduced ourselves and the Director emphasized how project-based learning is such an important aspect of the experience at this school. Then the students told us about “Sea Week at end of second term before Easter, when everyone has a project”.

Projects are student-driven and facilitated by staff. Pedro explained to us how they view the sea as “opportunities for careers”. He went on to tell us about a trip he made to the touristic town of Paniche where he and classmates went to a college with marine courses and shadowed older students. “ We did algae experiments with them.” He explained that there are Portuguese companies developing and selling algal products to places like Japan, so the experience was practical as well as fun.

“We went to the beach with a researcher from the college. He showed us how many different species of plants and animals there are on the rocks in Portugal. It was great to see this new level of detail that is important and we were curious about some of the species like the sea cucumber.”

“We had a conference with a man who’s company moved sharks to ocean areas. He made lots of money; we could tell from his car. He couldn’t get a job with his marine biology degree so he went to Australia and developed his shark skills there.” The boys thought that this was “a good example of entrepreneurship and doing what you want”.

Another student told us about a race they organized last year for grown-ups and students, called the ‘Race of the Sea’. “This small marathon went well and it stuck, so this year it ran for a second time. We defined the marathon course, gathered funds for an institution that helps people in need, (raised awareness about the importance of the sea) and it went well and so we did it again this year.” The Director added that the older students often work with the younger students. “The two boys who were here from the beginning have had a lot of impact because if they did a project and it was successful it continued, if it wasn’t it was dropped.”

The third student told us about a trip he made last year with nine other students and a teacher. They were on a mission to Seville, Spain for a week on the ship Creoula where the ten students and teacher worked with the naval officers. They had to wake up at 4AM and work, and then do various learning activities. They learned about discoveries from the 15th century, “when Spain & Portugal made a treaty on how to divide up the world”. They were also involved in the Universidad Itinerant Maritime (Travelling University of the Sea). They talked about those experiences and how “they felt like ambassadors from Portugal”.

The elementary teacher spoke to us about the little one’s early experiences with the pool/water and projects (portfolios). She told us how her older elementary class won the Kit do Mare contest by doing a project on traditional black and white Portuguese pavement. They produced an artwork piece on that subject, created with ink made from spices that had travelled by sea from afar. She noted many natural associations with the sea. “This year we did a project on American monsters and slept at the aquarium one night, near the sharks.”

The touring party was impressed by the large graphic showing the seven principles of ocean literacy (in Portuguese of course), at the beginning of our school tour. It was equally notable to hear about the school’s approach to adopting the ocean literacy framework. The Director explained that ocean literacy principles and conceptual curriculum design are very useful but not used prescriptively. She emphasized that their school’s approach is to try to make learning opportunities that incorporate the sea into all subjects and at the secondary level, particularly into the sciences like biology. While there are no specific marine science courses offered, the learning experience is “completely different from the public system where just the basics are covered”. “What comes to mind when I think of the school are the projects which are often related to the sea.” Each project also produces a video as a legacy that is shared and archived.

The Director also emphasized the importance of institutional relationships, between directors of blue schools in Europe for example and between their school and Portuguese institutions. This is important for professional development in particular. She explained that they had just spent two years working on improving evaluation and feedback in partnership with a university’s education department, that was involved as “critical friends”. They would meet together, design, observe teachers and analyse. They also developed strengths in collaborative learning and peer-to-peer learning this way. Students also have input to what happens in the school, they meet in committee once a month and report to the director. The school also delivers training to teachers with special needs students who are integrated into their classes. Additionally they have guest lectures and case studies on special topics. Most importantly, they get together and go to the beach. All in all the school provides “about 50 hours of professional development per year”.

Many of the challenges and opportunities here are the same as other schools even though this is obviously a monetarily privileged school and student body. Project-based learning, peer to peer and collaborative learning, community service learning, mentoring of younger students by older students, field-based and experiential learning are all pedagogical tools used by many diverse schools. Beyond monetary considerations, the big difference between this school and others is the intentional inclusion, valuation and honouring of the sea in all aspects of learning at Colégio Pedro Arrupe. It is certainly much more than ocean science literacy that they are achieving and it might well be the intertwining of culture and the sea that is at the heart of this school’s success as a Blue School. Additionally, by building memories for life there is greater potential to keep the sea in mind and feeling, beyond the school years. That heritage might just change the way these citizens will understand their relationship and interdependency with the ocean as adults.

This tour piqued my curiosity about Blue Schools. My son attended a Blue School in Canada and I always wondered whether the learning activities that those students undertook coloured their perspectives as adults. A follow-up study on Canadian Blue Schools might be informative. Perhaps a longitudinal evaluation of Colégio Pedro Arrupe graduates, might also improve our tangible understanding of the potential impact of this Blue School. Do graduates have a more profound understanding of the role the seas and oceans can play in a healthy planet? Do they understand how people can make a difference to a healthy ocean? Does the graduates’ understanding, change their behaviour in relation to the sea? These are difficult questions and relate to objectives of the Sea Change Project, to be explored my next ‘Lisbon’ blog.


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CaNOE Quest in Vancouver Harbour.

The skipper’s call was clear “Paddles down. Left side, pull forward, right – push back.” The big canoe pulled out, turning as it went, and it gained momentum making ripples in the sparkling water, as the second singsong call rang out. “Pull together now, follow the bow paddler. Forward. Pull together.”

Participants at Canada’s first conference on ocean literacy had the chance to paddle in a big canoe traditional style canoe named after Chief Dan George June 18th in Vancouver and it was a unique experience. The paddling quests were led by Takaya Tours of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and the purpose was multifold. First, these were ceremonial canoe trips, to celebrate the launch of the Canadian Network for Ocean Education – CaNOE, the new, small non-profit with big plans to advance ocean literacy in Canada. Second and equally importantly, these were paddles to honour First People’s presence, voices and history in this place. The trips also provided a rare chance to learn experientially, a little about traditional knowledge and culture in a busy, modern harbour which had not really been influenced by colonization, until about 150 years ago.

CaNOE members gathered in the little park just south of Canada Place. Their first daunting task was to get the 14 person canoe off the trailer, across the lawn and down to the beach. By the time we reached the beach, we were definitely working as a team and that bond would be handy later on. The Takaya Tour leaders were professional and skilled at handling the canoe and they were articulate and passionate about their culture and traditions. As it turned out, the skipper Dennis Thomas is also a skilled diplomat and his crew and lead paddler, Cease Wyss is moreover a wonderful storyteller and singer.

Before we left the beach, Dennis and Cease briefed us in detail on canoe safety, paddling details and traditional protocols. We learned that the artfully decorated fronts of the paddle-blades depicted a stylized wolf, specific to Tsleil-Waututh First Nation. Like flags on ships, the paddle designs identify nationality and sometimes a specific village or family line. On the back of each paddle a single, stylized, painted Salish eye, represented the ancestors. In the old days, in times of war, the paddles were reversed, with eyes pointing forward and wolves facing back, for anonymity on approach.

Before we launched, a prayer song reverberated across the bay and heads turned throughout Crab Park, towards the melodious refrain cutting through and above the cacophony of one of Canada’s busiest ports. We loaded carefully and took our seats. We were ready to go, holding our paddles with eyes facing backwards, holding the new knowledge that the ancestors ‘had our backs’ during this adventure.

Commands were spoken and the big canoe slipped out into the bay, paddlers pulling in time with the leaders (not bad for a newly formed team). Our skipper Dennis, whose traditional name is “Whonoak”, outlined the sail plan and reiterated some of the key safety points as we pulled out past the Harbour Police docks, skirting the north edge of the container terminal. He had already stated that we were to steer clear of the Sea Bus route, stay close to shore and inside the bay. As we neared the outer edge of our route, Cease Wyss turned in her seat to face the rest of the paddlers and after telling us her traditional name, “T’uy’t’tant”, she introduced her family connections and started her first story.

We drifted while she spoke, slowly swaying, paddles steady, listening to a story involving the original man and woman and a cliff dive into very deep water, long, long ago. The North Shore Mountains stood like sentinels, bearing witness to the scene. A cormorant flew by low, giving us the eye in passing and a seal popped up nearby and seemed to be listening to the storytelling voice. The Sea Bus passed well outside of us, packed with people heading downtown and the canoe bobbed gently in its wake giving rhythm to the ancient lore.

An incoming tugboat broke the spell. It rushed in towards us and the story was interrupted so we could pull well out of its way. The story started again as we rocked through its big wake, and again we were transported back to a time when people and animals could transform.

The next thing we knew, a large Harbour Police vessel was bearing down on us, at what appeared from canoe level, to be ramming speed. Maybe they were trying to give us a scare? At what seemed like the last minute, they turned smoothly and deftly came along side, to demand an explanation of what we were doing out on the water and to ask if we knew there were Sea Bus lanes. The mate asked our skipper if he had permission from the Harbour Authority to be there. Many in the canoe, grumbled under their breath about the officious captain, his mate and their unnecessarily assertive approach to this canoe that was out of the way of traffic. “Whonoak” who was in charge, took a different approach and handled the situation with confidence while, cooperating and maintaining a totally gracious and friendly bearing. By the time the police left they too were smiling and laughing and it looked like they felt really good about things.

“T’uy’t’tant” finished her story and regaled us with another song as we completed circling the bay in the big canoe. We glided in gently, almost as if we knew what we were doing and just kissed the beach with the bow, to unload in preparation for the second trip.

Dennis, the skipper, discretely contacted the Harbour Authority on his cell phone while we were swapping crews and doing a mini-media event, so we were ‘officially’ sanctioned for the second trip. So the second paddle in the canoe was a much calmer affair and hubbub of the downtown space seemed to melt away as the paddles rose and fell in unison. Again the stories and songs welled up in clear contrast to the scene at hand and accentuated a different, much older and possibly wiser perception of this harbour; now home to over a million people. My thoughts and feelings as we paddled, went beyond nostalgia for the past; I could sense an engrained connectedness by these two young entrepreneurs traceable through their family relations, with a great sense of potential for the future.

As the canoe, Chief Dan George glided through the water, the resilience of the Coast Salish people, shone through the ripples and reflections of distorted skyscrapers. The positive and respectful energy of our leaders helped propel the boat and revealed largesse of spirit. This CaNOE Quest, a field trip for marine educators and scientists who want to share understanding of the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean was more than just a paddle around the bay in downtown Vancouver. It was a quintessentially west coast experience and a very special way to view Vancouver, its past and its future. I was glad that First Peoples’ voices were part of the first CaNOE conference and thank Takaya Tours for making it happen. I hope that in shaping ocean literacy in Canada, more First Peoples’ voices are included and continue to inspire with such clarity.