This is the fifth part of a series about the Gill St. Bernard’s School unit, a travel and experiential learning program that the school founded in the early 1970s.
At the suggestion of a teacher, Amity Matthews ’18 chose sailing in the DC area as her Spring Unit experience. “Once I got there I loved it; I couldn’t think of a better unit,” Matthews says. “I’d never sailed before, but just jumped in. It was fun, but we also got real world knowledge we could use outside of school."

The group of 18 students took a week of lessons at the Mariner Sailing School in Alexandria, Virginia, and stayed in dorms at George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus. Some of the sailing basics that Matthews picked up, like how to skipper the vessel and work the mainsail, benefited her during the summer, when she worked as a counselor-in-training at a camp in Maine.

“During the trip, we were on the water from 10:00 to 4:00 and got a lot of in-boat experience,” she says. “I learned what to do if something went wrong. A few weeks later, I was able to reassure my campers if they capsized—I knew what to do.”

Matthews especially enjoyed staying in Washington, DC, and wants to make this location part of her college search. “It was nice to stay in the dorms on campus in the city and great to hear different perspectives from people who live there,” she says. One of her sailing instructors attends William & Mary, and after talking with him, that school is now on her top 10 list.

During the week, other activities included water balloon battles, kayaking through Dyke Marsh, a surprise cruise on the River Belle down the Potomac, and a bowling match at Fort Myer U.S. Army base.

For Candace Pryor Brown, a Gill history instructor who helped chaperone the trip, being in the heart of the nation’s capital had great significance for her. At night, the group walked around Georgetown and toured historical sites like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and World War II memorials. “The students had such reverence,” she says. “As a history teacher, it was really wonderful to be able to talk to them about the symbolism behind these monuments.”

When they returned to New Jersey, the sailors spent two days completing a boat-building challenge. The challenge was led by Robert Ort, a fine arts teacher at Gill. Ort proposed and organized the sailing unit, and he has now completed the sailing program three times. For the challenge, students were tasked with building boats made out of cardboard, duct tape and liquid nails. To test their designs, students paddled their vessels across a pond to see which team’s makeshift boat made it the farthest.

By all accounts, the unit was a success. “We had great weather, and the students learned a lot,” says Pryor Brown. “It was fun to see them learn a skill, take it seriously and become good sailors over the course of a week.” 
Reflecting the school’s motto, "The World is Our Classroom," the Spring Unit offers experiential learning opportunities locally, throughout the US, and internationally. Held each May, the two-week program encourages students to explore projects outside of the school’s regular academic curriculum. Although the programs vary from year to year in response to student interests and world events, every program has key factors in common.
For more than 40 years, the Spring Unit enables students to expand their knowledge and skills by applying them in new ways and through new experiences. Whether regionally or internationally, students discover connections to new environments and between their own lives and the lives of others. An essential part of GSB’s curriculum, the Spring Unit challenges students to think critically, to offer the best of themselves, and to cooperate with others in learning and doing. The Unit celebrates the educated imagination and the capacity in each person to see endless possibilities in the shared world.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.