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A 15-foot-long whale, nicknamed Burbujas, hangs in the Spanish room at University Liggett School. Photo by Ron Bernas
February 07, 2013
University Liggett School Lower School students are thinking about big things. Really big things. Whales, to be exact.

And, under the guidance of lower school Spanish teacher Vanessa Rivera, they’ve turned their eyes west to study the world’s longest known migration, that of the gray whales.


The gray whales, or las ballenas grises, travel 10,000 to 12,000 miles each year from the feeding grounds of the Arctic seas to the warm San Ignacio Lagoon off the Baja California, where they have their calves. Because the whales stick close to land, people on shore can — and do — watch the migration. Observation posts are set up all along the route, and observers count the whales, sending information to Journey North, an educational website that tracks, among other things, the whales’ migration.

Rivera looked into this project because it was similar to one she had done before through Journey North, which tracked the migration of the monarch butterfly to an area of Mexico. Lower school students wrote to students in the area where the monarchs ended up and discussed what they learned in both Spanish and English.

This year, she chose to have students follow the whales, coordinating the assignment with the lower school’s theme for the year, Every Drop Counts, an acknowledgement that every person contributes to the greater knowledge.

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Rivera has incorporated the theme into her teaching to varying degrees, depending on grade level, and the project has also been embraced by lower school science teacher, Kristie Jones.

To help students fully understand the size of the gray whales, Jones and Rivera decided to have student create their own. Students dew the outline of a baby gray whale — they’re 15-feet long — on gray paper and cut it out and stuffed the cutout with inflated balloons.

The whale, nicknamed Burbujas, or Bubbles, currently hangs in the Spanish room, dominating the room, as one expects a gray whale might do.

Students watch whales online and explore live maps of whale sightings. They learned Spanish songs about whales and other creatures that share the waters and created oceans-themed artwork.

The project inspired one Liggett family to spend a portion of their Christmas vacation in Mexico. They brought back video of the whales playing in the waters of Mexico.

Rivera and Jones’s project demonstrates the strength of Liggett’s Curriculum for Understanding, which recognizes that one cannot study a particular discipline on its own without showing how that subject can weave its way through so many other areas of study, inspiring further topics of conversation.

For people interested in joining the conversation, visit the Journey North website at learner.org/jnorth/gwhale.

The following article by Ron Bernas, Director of Communications at University Liggett School, was reprinted from Liggett Life, a mostly daily blog about student life at the school.

For more Liggett Life, visit blogs.uls.org/liggettlife.


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