A Whale of a Time

Which is larger, a river or an ocean? What is the closest ocean to Alberta? Can we live under the sea? What are some smells and sounds of the sea? What is seaweed? Can we eat it? Is a whale shark a whale or a shark? These were some of the questions that division two students were asked as a Prior Experience Check before attending a three day short-term program entitled Under the Sea at the Vision Resource Centre-Calgary from Tuesday, April 12th to Thursday, April 14th, 2011. This program was designed to enhance young students’ knowledge of the sea and life under the sea through a multisensory and hands-on approach, and was attended by students in grades 4, 5, and 6 who used low vision devices and Braille. We were excited to have ten students in attendance for this program.

Students had the opportunity to explore and learn together and develop their speaking, reading, writing, listening, literary, and assistive technology skills by participating in many multi-sensory activities while investigating life under the sea. The focus of this program was also to target areas of the Essential Components of Educational Programming for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired and skills within the Expanded Core Curriculum.  It was exciting to provide an interactive, learning environment with less emphasis on the visual experiences of the ocean and sea life, and more emphasis on the sounds, smells, tastes and touches of this underwater world. By providing this type of environment, the students were able to explore freely with all of their senses, and in turn, develop new concepts and gain and greater understanding of life under the sea by making these new discoveries part of their own learning experiences.

The theme of the first day of the program was At the Beach, On the Shore and the First Dive Under the Sea. The learning began with a discussion about bodies of water as compared to the ocean; the beach: natural and man-made objects found there (with hands-on sensory exploration in the sand); and life under the sea: both nature and man-made (with hands-on sensory exploration in water). All students were then introduced to coral reefs through the reading of tactile graphic diagrams (a new skill for many), and were treated to a visit in the afternoon by representatives from The Dive Shop, Calgary. The students learned a great deal about diving; equipment they would need when diving or snorkelling; safety when going under the sea; and creatures they may experience under the sea. The students handled and explored tactually an assortment of diving equipment and under the sea creature models; were able to practice breathing underwater in a basin of water using the mouthpiece from part of the diving apparatus, and had their photo taken wearing some diving equipment. During a break today, everyone also had the chance to taste-test some dulse (sent directly from Nova Scotia)…the expressions on the students’ faces were words enough. Periodically, the students wrote about their day in their experience journal. It was a great first day!

Inside of the WhaleThe theme for the second day of the program was Diving Day Two-The Coral Reef. The focus for the day was learning about life on a coral reef. There was a lot of class discussion as the students followed along and read information together about coral reefs using assistive technology devices and large print. The students made connections between 3-D creature models and 2-D tactile diagrams introduced from yesterday’s exploration activities, and used video clips (through sights and sounds) to enhance students’ learning. The students then participated in a research activity on computers using both JAWS and ZoomText to find information from a specific website about at least two creatures who live in coral reefs under the sea. They shared their findings with each other at the end of the session. As a result we learned about twenty or more creatures of the sea! Before the end of another busy day, the students were also read about four species of sharks (with some 3-D models and tactile diagrams)  and  what the term cetaceans means (dolphins, whales and porpoises) and were given the opportunity to explore tactually (using models and tactile graphic diagrams) the differences among these under the sea creatures. The students were visited by a real, blue crab today as well, although many were not very keen on exploring him tactually. By the end of day two, excitement was building among the program organizers in preparation of tomorrow’s BIG day.

Student with hand in the dorsal finThe theme for the third and last day of the Under the Sea program was A Whale of a Day!  As part of the setup for this last day, a very large surprise was waiting for the students in the school gymnasium. Thanks to many members of the VRC-Calgary team and family, we built a 56 foot (approx. 17 metres) long and 6-7 foot (approx. 2-3 metres) in diameter inflatable whale made of 6-mil plastic (the week before). This whale was designed to reflect a life-sized humpback whale (Our model is about 2 feet skinnier than the model in our plans…I told the students he ate less krill than the average humpback). Our whale model is black on one side to show the more realistic appearance of a whale and clear on the other to allow light into the whale while exploring for safety. Unknown to the students, this whale would be a focus of exploration and learning for them for the day. To introduce our whale, instruction began in the classroom about the following: What is a Whale? (mammals vs. fish) Two Groups of Whales (Baleen and Toothed) with the exploration of models and reading of tactile diagrams for each. We also used some wonderful websites and video clips to listen to the sounds of four different baleen whales and four toothed whales to hear and learn the unique sounds of each. We also went on a live audio site to listen to live whales off the coast of Hawaii. Even after all this information about whales, the question remained: How big is a whale? Did the students really understand how immense a creature of the sea this is? With great anticipation, we finally brought the students to the gym where they could see, touch, and experience the enormous size of this oceanic creature. It was all very exciting and very individual for each student as they shared what they thought as they explored. First we walked around the perimeter of the whale, trailing along its long body so they had an idea of its general size. We they asked the students if they thought they could reach over the whale with their arms, or on tip-toe, but they soon discovered, this would not work. Next we asked if perhaps they could reach the top of the whale using their white canes. Even with people on the other side reaching, we could barely touch their canes-or not at all. We made the eyes of our whale tactual as well so the students could find them easily and as we walked around the whale explored the size of its long flippers. The whale was also designed so the students could go inside it, so we also offered sighted guide through the doorway of the whale and walked from one end of the whale to the other for each student. While inside, we showed the students each flipper opening and allowed them to touch the dorsal fin (very small for this huge whale) at the top of his body. We also showed them where the whale blow-hole would be which whales need for breathing when they come up on the surface of the water.  Finally, we took a rope and worked together to measure the circumference of the whale length-wise (needed two ropes); the circumference width-wise from top to bottom; the length of one of its flippers; and went inside to measure its height. The students were very involved and seemed very interested and excited to explore this new creature. Many pictures were taken. (We have included a few to share with you). We spent quite a long time with our whale and ate lunch with him.

The students wrote about their whale experiences in the afternoon. Here is a sample of some of this student writing:   
Today, I went into CJPs gym and I touched a whale. Not a real one of course…It was 56 feet long...when the ten of us put our arms up on the whale to see if we could touch the top, we weren’t able to touch to top of the whale. Then some of the adults went on the other side of the whale and tried to see if they could touch our hands, but they weren’t successful. (MH Grade six)
 I went inside a plastic whale…The experience of the whale made me feel happy because I know how big a whale is, how much it weighs, what whales sound like, and what it looks like. ..Here is what I did in the whale. I put my hand in the dorsal fin, I felt how big the flipper of the whale is, and I also took a tour of it….If I was on top of the whale I would be high upon the dorsal fin. It was lots of fun…I almost felt like we had been eaten up by the whale. When Mrs. Laurin lifted me up to touch the dorsal fin, I thought it was a real dorsal fin. But luckily it wasn’t. It was made out of plastic and was blown up by air. It was warm when I got inside of it. The whale was really big. So big I couldn’t really touch the top of it. (NS Grade 4).
Today I experienced a humpback whale. It was really awesome even though it was just a blow up whale. The most fun about that was that I got to go inside and feel it…I also got to measure it...I also got to go into it twice because I got to help measure its height too. There were lots of people that built it, it was amazing. It was such a fun experience and I am glad I got to share it with all my friends!!!!!! (SE grade six).
Today I saw a whale. The fins were big. The whale was giant. I touched the whale. I measured the whale with string. I went inside the whale. I felt happy because I could feel the air that blew up the whale. (KG grade 5).
Today at the vision centre we met a whale. It was a big life size Humpback whale made of plastic and tape. We trailed along it and felt how long a real whale would be. We ate snack and lunch with the whale…We measured the surcomefrince, the high, and how long around… I really enjoyed this whale… I enjoyed all the kind things they have done for our whale experience. Thank all the kind people that have helped me have a great three days. (AD grade 5).
When I first saw the huge whale I thought wow. Before I saw that whale I thought a whale is way smaller. I could of never imagined…When I went inside it looked bigger…I am thankful that people took the time to make this whale…and for an amazing 3 day program. (SH grade 5).
I thought that the whale experience was very cool/fun! It was huge…it was a great experience to see how large whales are. (TH grade 5).
 As soon as I saw the whale I new we would be going inside. I thought the whale was really cool…Touching the whale was really cool. It was bumpy. (CH Grade 6)

While the students were writing, some were brave enough to taste some fruits of the sea…some students sampled crab and lobster and described which they liked better-or NOT. Throughout the program we adopted a real hermit crab who stayed with us for the three days. The students voted and the hermit crab was named Athena. We closed our program by eating delicious Under the Sea cake (made especially by a vision staff member) and having the students do a Post-Experience Check (similar to the pre-experience check they did prior to attending the program) and Exit Passes  to check for increased understanding of life under the sea and overall program learning.  Based on these checks, the students seemed to grow in many areas of knowledge!

Here are some overall student comments about the program :

This morning I felt a lobster…it was nastey and it was rubber and had too many legs I hate feelers. The crab was also nastey and had too many legs…My favourite time was when the ladies told us about skouba diving it was fun. (CH grade 6)
My favourite thing about the Under the Sea  program was when we had the scuba divers come and talk…I especially liked when they let us where the mask… It was a fun experience. (SE grade 6)
I like the whale because it makes a deep, resounding, ooooooooooo! We went inside a life-sized whale. We got to eat crab. I liked to hear the huge kasplooooosh! Of the whales as they plunge into the water and the PFFFFF! of their blowhole. I touched the big whale!  (DW grade 5).
I didn’t know that jellyfish went 8 mph tops. The blue whale is my favourite under the sea creature because it is the biggest animal ever. The sea (whale) shark is the biggest fish in the world…I touched sand; smelled salt water; tasted lobster; heard whale noises and lobster was my favourite experience. (NM grade 5). 
Something I smelled: crabs; Something I touched: tacktile pictures; Something I tasted: crabs; Something I heard: sounds from under the sea; Which was your favourite experience?  Having fun with everyone.  (MH grade 6).

Looking back, it was a thrill for me as a teacher of students who are blind and visually impaired to have had the opportunity to teach and interact with these students about this very interesting and fun topic. Even if we were not able to actually go to the sea to learn about it, it was great to be able to bring a bit of the sea to the students! The best part of this program for me was providing an opportunity for these ten students to explore, discover and make personal connections (with a non-visual focus) and experience learning about life under the sea. (My favourite part was our students’ reactions and interactions with our life-sized whale)

Special thanks again to all CBE Vision team and family members who helped build our humpback whale and helped make this program possible. Thanks parents for entrusting your children to us.


Submitted by Angela Laurin
CBE Program Teacher-Vision ,
Calgary, Alberta.