A Whale of a Time

In the classroom and online, schoolchildren are learning multi-layered lessons derived from the Island’s rich whaling heritage.

“A blue whale’s tongue is large enough for a full-grown elephant to stand on it,” a first-grader from the West Tisbury School informs her classmates with a big grin.

“Its heart is the size of a VW bug car.” Clearly excited by her topic, this student’s recitation of fun facts about whales is part of an innovative curriculum developed by teachers at the school, along with staff at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown. Every teacher knows that a good lesson produces a ripple effect. And in this case, the ripples created in an Island classroom are now reaching international waters.

Truth be told, the ripple actually started back in 1868, when a six-year-old Edgartown girl embarked on an adventure: Laura Jernegan went to sea aboard the whaling ship Roman, along with her mother, her younger brother, and her father, Jared Jernegan, the ship’s captain. The journal in which she chronicled her daily life from 1868 to 1871, when she returned home to Edgartown, is now the cornerstone of an extensive new website the museum launched this past summer on nineteenth-century whaling,

Laura’s journal, which resides in the museum’s permanent collection, also served as the inspiration for the classroom collaboration with teachers. What began as four lessons for first- and second-grade students in a multi-age class in West Tisbury evolved into a full-year program of study that uses whales and the whaling industry as the backbone of the curriculum.

In 2005 Nancy Cole, then working for the Martha’s Vineyard schools superintendent and now the museum’s education director, wrote and received a grant to develop the curriculum. Together with Lynn Whiting, a former teacher who was then the museum’s education director, Nancy began planning the project with West Tisbury School teachers Martha Stackpole, Lauren Keaney Serpa, Valerie Becker, and later, Elaine Barnett and Kristy Fletcher. They thought their young students – the same age as Laura was when she wrote about her experiences at sea – would find the journal especially compelling, and few such accounts authored by a child exist.

“What a resource to see this [whaling] through the eyes of a child in Laura’s journal,” Nancy says. “According to the 1850 census, half of the men on the Island were mariners. Whaling brought people here, especially the Portuguese. There is so much about our Island history that kids can connect to.”

“We were always on the edge,” Martha recalls with a bright smile. “We’d think, ‘Let’s try this!’ The next day, we would, and the kids would go for it.”

Their enthusiasm grew as the project developed. The curriculum actively engaged students by offering many different learning opportunities, such as charting a course, drawing different whales, and calculating weight and volume. “It was experiential education at its finest, using primary sources in a relevant way. It started as a few lessons in mapping and journaling, but found success because it was just so real,” Valerie explains. The team believes this yearlong curriculum on whaling was powerful because it took a “hub” approach, in which one big idea helped children make meaning out of many smaller details.

By pooling their expertise in technology, history, and education, the team created lessons about world geography and math involving artifacts from the museum. “The kids were immediately invested,” Lauren says. “Having actual harpoons and scrimshaw was hugely helpful.”

Through their lessons, teachers underscored that this project extended beyond whaling. “Once kids got started, they began to notice more Island connections, like street names and captains’ houses. They started to see their world differently,” Lauren explains. “There was a snowball effect. You could bring in so many aspects, like learning how different plant species came here. We had kids explore what artifacts [from other countries] were brought here through whaling and what their purpose was.”

Elaine says, “Creating this curriculum enhanced the teaching of world geography, by giving kids a chance to feel a close connection to what they were studying, even if it was two thousand miles away.”

Math lessons were taught using facts about whales. Students estimated how many children it takes to match the weight of a sperm whale’s heart – about six seven-year-olds, or approximately 277 pounds – and the number of children’s bodies that would line up to match the length of a whale. The children, physically and mentally engaged in their lessons, were fascinated with the facts they were learning. They were surprised to learn that the sperm whale’s worst enemy is a giant squid and were awestruck when they realized that Laura Jernegan’s father began his career at sea at age thirteen.

As the school’s technology teacher, Valerie helped students videoconference with schools throughout the world that are or have been impacted by the whaling industry. During a conversation with a class in Iceland, Vineyard students learned that people in some parts of the world still hunt whales. To their surprise, on that particular day the Icelandic students were looking forward to having whale skin as a snack. Through the use of “Voice Thread,” a web-based communications network, West Tisbury students talked with Eskimo children who were about to go on a whale hunt. Conferences with schoolchildren in the Azores and Argentina gave them a chance to discuss other topics (with a translator’s help). “Even life lessons like ‘Everyone doesn’t look like we do’ could be conveyed through these activities,” Valerie notes.

The whaling curriculum had a lasting impact for its six- and seven-year-old students. When Elaine’s class adopted a real-life whale, they named him Tornado and learned how to identify him by his distinctive tail fluke. More than a year later, a boy from the class on a whale watch expedition off Cape Cod with his family correctly identified Tornado, which was verified by the ship’s very impressed captain. Valerie continues to work with the students who were involved with the first whaling curriculum. “It’s evident they own the knowledge. They still talk about activities they did [several] years ago,” she says. Lauren adds, “If children have a strong sense of history, they will steward and protect it.”