Whale of a Time PBL: A second grade project by Jill Leipelt’s Second Grade


How do you instill compassion for an animal that most students have never seen and keep them engaged throughout the project?

The key was in making the project come alive. We needed to bring the experiences to our 2nd graders. The project came alive from the start with our entry event to the Imax Theater to see “Humpback Whales.” The inquiry had begun with an extensive Need to Know list in all of the classes.

We began our learning about whales, their features and what made them unique. Students then began researching different types of whales by using QR codes to access different articles and videos. They recorded their findings in a research template. Students used this to write a non-fiction book about a self-selected whale.

IMG_3509The rich vocabulary was made meaningful through the use of GLAD strategies such as a Cognitive Content Dictionary. Students made predictions about the word, recorded the actual meaning and created movements for each word. We also recorded our findings about each whale we studied on a process grid that was posted for reference throughout our project.

Midway through our project, we boarded a bus and headed to The Cal Academy of Sciences to see a featured exhibit on whales. Here we saw actual whale skeletons, baleen and learned about whale conservation.

We infused our learning about whales into our math curriculum as well. Our math unit focused on measurement. Students used non-standard units (whales) to measure their bodies and also applied their learning using rulers to create a whale of their choice using given measurements. We even used our bodies and laid end to end on our grass field to experience just how large a blue whale was!

After learning about the plight of whales today and watching videos of whales entangled in fishing nets, we decided we wanted to do something to help. We adopted a whale from the Pacific Whale Foundation whose mission is whale conservation.

With exhibition upon us, the students were told they would create an interactive whale museum. “Let’s show how much milk a baby blue whale drinks in a day!” exclaimed a student. Thus, the task of collecting gallon milk jugs began.

Students demonstrated how blubber keeps a whale warm by having visitors put their hand in ice water and then compare after using a “blubber glove.”

They demonstrated how baleen whales capture krill in a simulation using a comb as baleen.

A comparison of the actual sizes of various whales was measured out by students and displayed on the wall.

Students were also proud to read and display their digital version of their informational whale book.

The most dramatic was the life size rendition of a blue whale’s heart.

Student reflection included some of the following:

  • My favorite part was presenting that I know that blubber keeps the whales warm. —Ashley
  • I liked people watching my book because other people learn about whales. —Daniela
  • I thought exhibition was fun because lots of people came and I got to share my book. —Elijah
  • My favorite part was talking about a baby blue whale can drink 50 gallons of milk a day. —Kimberly
  • I learned blue whales are the largest animal. –Omar
  • My favorite part was when we made our books and we showed our books to the upper grades because they didn’t know nothing about whales. –Geselle

As our project was ending, several students mentioned they were sad it was over. Some were going to continue the learning by checking out the whale books that were being returned to the library. One student mentioned she was going whale watching with her family over the school break to “find out more.”   Sustained inquiry even after the project is over? A teacher couldn’t ask for anything more.

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