Gus Miller: The Educator

Published on June 15th, 2015

American August ‘Gus’ Miller is something of an old salt. Sailing Finns since 1966, the Olympian and Finn Hall of Fame inductee, now in his eighties, is also an educator. While a noted elite sailing coach, Miller is also the mastermind of the Bermuda Schools WaterWise curriculum. Here Gus explains…

Bermuda Schools WaterWise (BSWW) was designed from its beginning in 1999 to be an integrated cross curricula program. It was begun in this particular way by a suggestion agreed to by Milton Scott as the Minister of Education (MOED), Dennis Lister as the Minister of Youth Development, Sport and Recreation, and Diane Vasic as the Executive Director of the Bermuda Sailing Association (BSA).

The focus is fundamentally academic in order to gain the full enthusiastic support of school administrators and teachers. It was designed to be taught in concert by the entire first year middle school team of teachers across nine subjects during the academic year (students ages 11 to 12 years).

The WaterWise curriculum is structured around five basic parts. The physical education and health teachers teach their parts in four 90 minute land sessions to remove fear of the water which are then repeated in five 90 minute water sessions.

The sections on language, math, science (physics, chemistry and biology), environmental stewardship, social studies, Bermuda maritime history, business, information technology, visual arts and design and technology are woven seamlessly into the stages of the land and water progression. The classroom subjects’ sessions are complimentary to prepare the children for each of the five water steps.

Play, experiment, perceptual learning and retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are essential to each child’s self-mastery of each stage of the program. Each lesson fundamentally builds on accumulated knowledge so that the progression is coherent and effective. Students keep a WaterWise journal in which they write and draw in every session related to the program.

The Greeks recognized a special sort of excellence in organizations and in people where the whole has a balance between parts. WaterWise accomplishes this by using a variety of teaching techniques. Some are fast paced, focused on classifying problems rather than solving them which can build intuition quickly. Others are like the Steiner-Waldorf approach that is interdisciplinary, integrating practical, artistic, and analytic conceptual elements.

In the modules, the objective of BSWW is to have classroom study related to water safety, seamanship and sailing as thematic units.

The five parts are:
• Land One and Water One – Water safety; the attributes and attitudes of a seaman and qualification to go solo.
• Land One and Water Two – Steering and maneuvering on a beam reach.
• Land Two and Water Three – Sail trim on close and broad reaches including right of way rules.
• Land Three and Water Four – Tacking upwind on a close reach and running.
• Land Four and Water Five – Beating close hauled in a shifting wind.
• Water Six (Optional) – Free sailing without the Pandora’s Box quincunx to a picnic beach and return.

Because the students have no experience with wind direction, five marks in a quincunx to keep them oriented to the wind must be set accurately both on land and the water. The quincunx variations are called horizontal, squashed, squeezed and vertical Pandora’s Boxes because of the multitude of challenges including crossing situations and emotional states that they can potentially present to helmsmen. The students see the land variations of this five mark pattern repeated in sequence in each of their water sessions.

BSWW is not a junior, youth, or after school sailing program but is taught entirely during school hours. The land sessions use a stern steering wheeled simulator dolly with whatever dinghy(s) is (are) to be used in the water sessions. The curriculum has changed and evolved as new Ministers changed the academic objectives.

Presently it uses the M1 Cambridge Curriculum. It has evolved to reflect the cumulative experience and practices of the all the M1 teachers in the five different public middle schools. It incorporates Project 2061, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) effort to improve science education so people become literate in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

BSWW never mentions racing. The children are competitive and curious enough that short 50 meter comparisons of speed and angle will spontaneously arise but they never last long. There can be too much emphasis put on competition results at a young age when kids want to play, dream, and hang out with their friends.

One objective here is for children to quickly gain a clear minded understanding of safety, seamanship and small boat handling. The program teaches children how to think independently and opens the world of thought just a bit.

Most people do not understand Bermuda Schools WaterWise until they see and experience its transforming impact on students. The students go solo from their first moment on the water and from a small boat they learn that the sea is a severe disciplinarian.

The students’ ability to concentrate on the task at hand, to let go of panic and attitude, to work in concert with classmates, to have confidence in their ability to train, practice and accomplish something they have never done improve markedly. Test results from a critical set of international exams given across the school system show that WaterWise students perform better than those without the WaterWise experience.

Unfortunately, the MOED was told by the Government in early 2010 to cut its budget in two days by BDA $6 Million. This resulted in the end of funding for WaterWise, and without funding, BSA had to end its role administering WaterWise for MOED.

However, the middle school teachers were gung-ho to see all their M1 students go through WaterWise so they organized and paid for their own Professional Development Program. This ownership drive shown by the public school teachers convinced Christian Luthi, a local sailor and attorney, to create Bermuda Schools WaterWise Ltd (BSWW) as a not-for-profit organization to keep WaterWise going.

Generous charitable gifts by the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation and the Bermuda Security Group (click here) have made this spring’s reinvigoration of the program in all five public middle schools possible. These grants also paid for repairs and replacements at hurricane damaged facilities used by BSWW at both ends of the Island.


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