Background of Whale Day:
Let me start by saying Whale Day is the equivalent of a Science Teacher’s Super Bowl! It requires endless amounts of energy, planning, stress, communication… it is a MONSTER of a project. BUT – once it is all over and I see the authentic learning experiences from my students, I always am thankful I went through the emotional roller coaster of planning Whale Day. If you’re intrigued by this wonderfully random scientific event…. Read on!
Whale Day is a small-town tradition started 23 years ago by a veteran biology teacher who retired in 2016. I was hired to fill this teacher’s position (talk about BIG shoes to fill as a first-year teacher… that is a whole other post). Like I described above, the project is massive and extremely tiring on the teacher. Most believed that with this teacher’s retirement, Whale Day would come to a sad end. However, little did the community know, this young, spunky teacher would be crazy enough to take it on – so here we are!
What is Whale Day:
I teach an Ecology course with juniors and seniors. In the spring, these students learn all about the Blue Whale and become experts in their particular Whale Day topic (Size, Feeding, Calves, etc.). They spend several weeks researching, developing posters, lesson plans, activities, and scripts.
On Whale Day, the 2nd graders from the nearby elementary school go on a field trip to the gym of the High School. In the gym, a life-size inflatable Blue Whale is set-up, accompanied by a life-size baby blue whale. My high school students are positioned in stations around the Blue Whale, where the 2nd graders will rotate through and learn all about the Blue Whale. Side note: the inflatable whale and “Welcome to Whale Day” sign are both 23 years old. I know – crazy! This may have been the last year for the sign, but the whale is still going strong! I have contemplated trying to make a new whale, but something that is so special to this community is that parents, and how their children, have all experienced the same whale on Whale Day. So, in an effort to continue this sweet tradition, even though this whale has seen better days, my plan is to keep the same whale until it no longer works.
Why Whale Day Matters:
I’m about to get deep y’all. I’m about to discuss those things that keep us going as teachers. Those moments that remind you – this is why you teach. This is why you do what you do.
Whale Day brings out the BEST in my students. The kids who have struggled all year, somehow become super heroes on Whale Day and knock it out of the park. My students transform from teenagers into these amazing, engaging teachers to 2nd graders. Students who typically show little interest in any educational activity, are all of the sudden involved and participating. It is truly amazing.
This past Whale Day, I experienced two touching moments that I will forever hold on to. Both of these stories involve students whom I have had major highs and lows with all year.
I spent a great deal of energy and time attempting to form a relationship with this student all year. To be honest, I have recently felt like my efforts were getting me no where with this student. I had tried to form a relationship with her, and I really felt like I failed. However, I could not have been more wrong. About 10 minutes before her class was supposed to show up for Whale Day, my student shows up. I greet her like normal and try to start hyping her up for Whale Day. She stops me, and hands me a box with a smile on her face. At this point, I am wondering what’s inside this box (if you teach high school… need I say more?). Noticing the hesitation on my face, she starts to laugh and tells me she’s being serious and asks me to open the box. I slowly and cautiously open the box. Inside was a whale fluke pendant she had bought while she was in Alaska a few years ago. My student went on to tell me she wanted to give me the pendant as a gift because at the end of the day, she loves me and she knows I love her. QUE THE WATER WORKS!! My heart was SO touched and full. I melted. The struggle I have felt nearly every day since August to form a relationship with this student became completely and totally worth it in that moment. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The other incredibly moving moment deals with a student who has had a very difficult home life. Due to several things that have happened in his past, he will not participate in any sort of presentation. I learned the hard way, that when you push this student too far to present out of his comfort zone, MAJOR explosions result. So, for the past two months, I have strategically tried to offer words of affirmation to this student to build up his confidence to teach the 2nd graders on Whale Day. However, on Whale Day Eve, I realized after conversing with my student, that he was unwilling to teach the 2nd graders. I still wanted him to have the Whale Day experience. As an alternative to teaching, I asked if he would be the official “Whale Repair Manager” and circulate around the whale with duct tape and scissors in case there are any holes in the whale that need to be repaired. He reluctantly agreed. As planned, when Whale Day began, my student started monitoring the whale. About ten minutes into Whale Day, I couldn’t find this student. Immediately I started to worry – did he run off out of fear, is he acting out and getting into trouble to cover-up his nerves, do I need to call the office to find him? All of these thoughts were rushing through my head. But then I spotted him. One of my other students was presenting by himself (two of his group members were unexpectedly absent). Out of compassion for his classmate, he had joined the lone presenter and started helping him teach the 2nd graders. THIS WAS A HUGE MOMENT! Not only was he facing his fear, he was teaching about a topic he had not prepared for. He was teaching these students completely on the fly, and doing a great job at that. He was laughing, asking questions, and acting goofy to engage the 2nd graders. It was a moment I will forever treasure. I was incredibly proud. The next day, my student came to my class during his lunch break to tell me how much he enjoyed Whale Day. He then asked if he could take my class again next year. Let me point out- nearly every day for the past year, this kid has told me how much he hates my class, and now he was asking to take it again next year. My heart – so full y’all!
I could go on about why Whale Day is so important to not only my teacher battery, but more importantly to my students. The stories are truly inspiring. I like to say that as teachers, we have 99 difficult moments for about 1 powerful teaching moment. But I promise you – it is worth it. I promise that the challenges and struggles you face are getting you THAT much closer to a moment that’s worthwhile. These moments – when you create an opportunity for a student to rise to a challenge, to stretch themselves, to grow, to experience a love for learning – are what its all about. This is why we teach. And this is why I am crazy enough to continue on this Whale Day tradition.
andddd shout out to my rockstar husband who took time off of boards studying to support me at Whale Day. My Dad also took time off of work to visit, and Brandon took him to lunch after. I am beyond blessed to have these men in my life!
Thanks for keeping up with my teaching journey!