Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

LESSON 4: In Search of the Northwest Passage: A Glimpse Into the Life of a Sailor



In this lesson, students will be given 20 minutes to use the internet to research a given topic dealing with 18/19th century sailing.  The point is to develop questioning strategies during information gathering.  The goal is to create a graphic “web” of information and a written summary of internet-related issues.  The lesson accomplishes three broad objectives:

A) Provide a glimpse of the life of a sailor in the 1700-1800’s.

B) Encourage the students to ask questions during the information gathering in order to create a “web” rather than a linear progression of information.

C) To confront the value, and limitations, of utilizing internet based research.

Work can be either group or individual based.

Kenai Fjords National Park website has excellent resources for teachers and students at:





A-4: Understand that history relies on interpretation of evidence

A-8: Knowing that history is a bridge to understanding groups of people

C-1: Use technology to access, retrieve, and organize historical information.


Inquiry Based Thinking Strategies Utilized:

Interpretation of Data:  As students gather information, they will determine the relevancy of the information to their research focus.

Following a Line of Questioning:  Students will  formulate and  explore new questions with each  bit of new information.

Summarizing:  Once information is gathered, students will present a condensed and organized summary of their findings.



Too often research is approached as  a way to answer questions that are predisposed. This results  with information that is linear (one fact predictably following another).  This lesson is designed to encourage continual questioning strategies that result in a more “web-like” exploration of information.   During this lesson  students  will reformulate questions throughout the course of their research.  Simply put, when new information is uncovered; this should spawn more questions. The trick is to “listen to” and not to be prejudged toward the information that is expected.  When properly employed, the researcher may well  be taken in many unexpected directions.  This is a strategy that should be employed for all research whether using the internet or conducting an interview.

In addition, since this lesson uses the internet as the “interviewee”  it is likely that students will encounter some of the shortcomings and pitfalls of using the “web.”  They may find information that is inaccurate or contradictory.   It’s a good time to remind students that the web may be fast and easy, but reliability is not always the internet’s best attribute.   Primary sources (although not infallible, quick, nor easy) are still the researcher’s best friend.



        1)     Set the Stage:  (To the Students) History text books often provide broad brush strokes to describe events:  In 1778 Captain Cook reached what is know known as Cook Inlet; Bering launched his second expedition into the Gulf of Alaska in 1741; The French explorer, de Galaup, set out to report on Spanish and Russian activities along the coastline of Alaska. These broad statements document the period of exploration and exploitation of the Alaska  coastline. However, within the depths of these facts lay the realities of the sailor aboard these vessels.  Prior to the advent of the steam ship, the life of a seaman could not have been easy.  Life aboard a sailing vessel had to be physically and mentally taxing.  Life (and survival) aboard a sailing ship was dictated by the winds and the seas.  There must have been long periods of boredom punctuated by moments (days?) of sheer terror.  Provisions were at times scant, disease was common, laws were strict, punishment severe.  The broad statements in the texts do little to provide the context of maritime exploration of Alaska in the 18th and 19th century.

This lesson, though generic to the 18th and 19th century sailor, has many applications to the student conducting research into the Kenai Corridor.  First, this lesson will provide small vignettes— windows— into the life aboard a sailing ship that may have plied the Alaskan waters.  But more importantly, it requires the student to look beyond an information stream that is linear into one that, as a web, can unpredictably go in any number of directions.  The trick is to not be prejudged toward the information one expects to find but to “listen” to the information that is uncovered and to “ask” questions that further expands understanding (even if it is in a totally unexpected direction.)

Lastly, this lesson utilizes the internet as the source of information.  Although the “web” can be a good source for information, this lesson will help tap into the strengths of the world wide web while illuminating deficiencies.

2) Describe the Task:   Explain to the students that they will be working (in groups?) at a computer station.  They will be given a word or phrase.  Their task is to research how this topic is related to sailing (particularly in the 18/19th century).

As new information is learned, students should ask questions about this new informatinl in order dig deeper into the subject. (A search site such as is handy for this type of internet questioning.)  You will know if you are creating a “web” of information if you end up visiting many sites and not relying on one or two.

Time is short (20 minutes?) therefore diligence and focus will be necessary.

3) Give it a try:   If necessary provide students with a “trial project.”  The next two pages demonstrate what a web researching “Knots— Velocity” might resemble.