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Rachel Friend’s “Wild for Whales” Curriculum Makes a Splash

By Kristina Hulvershorn

Rachel Friend is a visionary educator whose passion for marine conservation led her to craft the Wild for Whales curriculum designed to foster empathy, understanding, and a better future for whales.  She has been teaching for 22 years and currently teaches 4th grade language arts and social studies.  Rachel has always felt a responsibility to educate her students about the world beyond the classroom and how they can use their passions and voice to make a difference.  Rachel began her teaching career in the suburbs of Chicago and now resides in Ft. Worth, TX.

When the HEART team learned about Rachel’s incredible work, we knew we had to share it with our community.  Through her innovative approach, she is igniting young minds and nurturing a generation of compassionate stewards for our oceans.  Let’s dive into our recent interview with Rachel!

What inspired you to develop this curriculum specifically focused on whales?

Supporting The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), an organization building a seaside sanctuary for captive orcas and belugas in Nova Scotia, is what inspired me to develop this curriculum. When I first learned about WSP, I knew I wanted to educate my students about the lives of captive whales compared to the lives of wild whales and the benefits of life in sanctuary. Beyond that, I wanted to instill in my students why it’s important to learn about the world outside our classroom and how they can make a difference for whales in captivity. I was also inspired by other educators and students who were looking to learn more about captive whales and lives free from tanks.

Can you provide an overview of this curriculum and the age range/grade levels it’s intended for?

Wild for Whales is intended for students in Grades 3-6 (ages 8-12), but can be adapted for younger or older students. The curriculum includes a comprehensive digital guide that provides educators with lessons, resources, and activities that engage and educate their students about WHO whales are and why captive orcas and belugas need sanctuaries. Students are provided with a digital notebook where they can engage with text, videos, and questions that promote higher-level thinking. The digital escape room is a student favorite in which students succeed by solving puzzles and finding codes to help a captive whale make it to a sanctuary!

What changes in students’ attitudes and behaviors does your curriculum strive to make, and what approaches does it use to try to achieve those changes?

The Wild for Whales curriculum strives to help students foster lifelong empathy and compassion, while enhancing critical thinking skills. A variety of approaches is used to achieve that and reach all learners. First, students are invited to openly share their opinions about captive whales and entertainment through a whole-class discussion. Students also collaborate with peers as they learn about whales’ needs and the benefits of a sanctuary. As they discover more about whale culture and the unique behavior of orcas and belugas, students reflect on which one they are more like and explain their reasoning. Finally, Wild for Whales involves students in deciding on a culminating project to share their learning and passion while raising awareness and support for The Whale Sanctuary Project. Providing students with opportunities to discuss important issues, collaborate, think critically, reflect, and share their learning compels children to be more empathetic and compassionate thinkers.

Are there any specific success stories or memorable moments you’d like to share from implementing your curriculum in the classroom?

A few memorable stories I’d like to share are all testaments to how the curriculum has made a lasting impact on my students. The second year I implemented the curriculum, I had a group of students who wanted to continue our work after our WSP art show wrapped up, so they decided to present what they learned at our District EXPO, an event that hosts students from all the schools in our district. After their presentation, they answered questions from an administrator in the audience. We had not prepared responses ahead of time, so I was very impressed by their heartfelt replies and confidence. Later, as one of my students was leaving, her mother smiled and told me that she is “now raising an animal advocate.”

Another moment that stands out to me is when two of my students from the past year returned to tell me that they had chosen to do their independent class projects on The Whale Sanctuary Project and whales in captivity. One specifically focused hers on the importance of teachers educating their students about the topic. I loved that she had internalized her learning from that perspective. When I watched their presentations, my other student concluded by looking out into the audience with strong passion and conviction and stating, “If I can make a difference, so can you.”

Finally, implementing this curriculum has allowed my students and me to connect with other educators and students from around the world. For World Whale Day, we collaborated with schools in Arkansas, Scotland, and Canada to create a video to share our passion and inspire others to support whales in captivity. My students were thrilled to see that our work had traveled worldwide!

I am so encouraged by all of my students and their hearts for making a difference in our world. Sometimes as teachers, we don’t get to see how our teaching impacts our students once they leave our classroom, but many of my students return to visit and tell me how much they loved the lessons and project from Wild for Whales. When I ask them what they loved about them, a common response is that they felt empowered by making a difference for the whales and telling others about it and it was fun! For me, that’s what teaching is all about — encouraging students to find a passion that allows them to make a positive change in our world.

Have you encountered any challenges in promoting humane education or in teaching lessons like these, and how have you addressed them?

One challenge I have encountered in teaching humane education in my classroom is maintaining a culture of respect for different views. When we begin the unit with our debate about animals in entertainment, some students share experiences of enjoying swimming with dolphins at marine parks or excitedly watching animals perform. I’m always intentional to establish norms with my students with an emphasis on valuing and respecting all opinions even when they are different from our own. My intention is never for students to be told how to feel or what to believe, but rather for them to make their own conclusions through what they learn. By modeling that for my students, they demonstrate the same level of respect for each other.

Secondly, a challenge I have faced in promoting humane education is teachers asking how to fit it in their schedules. Since Wild for Whales is aligned to standards, it can be embedded into many content areas. Many teachers also implement a daily morning meeting to focus on social-emotional learning, and humane education is a perfect way to reach the SEL needs of their students. Bottom line is that educators can start by taking small steps to make it work best for them and their students.

What have your experiences with humane education been with your students in general and why are you such a believer in this approach?

Overall, my experiences with humane education in my classroom have been overwhelmingly positive and I’ve always received a warm response from families. When we focus on solutions that help animals live better lives and not blame others, children and families come together to show support.

I am a believer in humane education because I have seen firsthand the difference it makes in my students’ lives. They are more engaged and motivated to learn, they become more confident in their abilities, and positive classroom behaviors increase. When I first started teaching this way, I had a student who struggled with learning. When our project concluded, she told me that she felt so important. Years later, her mother shared with me that her confidence had grown so much since then and she no longer needed extra help in her classes. She believed it was due to the impact of our project and how her daughter was given a chance to make a difference. Another student I had was known to struggle with negative behaviors in class, but every day he smiled when he came into my room and asked if we were doing the whale journal. I think he felt a connection to the injustice animals can suffer and he liked learning about how we can change that.

I have also found that when we pay attention to our students’ interests and tap into their strengths, it shows them that they are valued for who they are as people. Early in my career, a student shared that she volunteered at a local animal shelter, so we decided to reach out to the shelter for a list of what they needed. We decided to host a poetry reading for families to attend, and their “ticket” was an item from their list. I could tell that she felt empowered that her voice had promoted change. As educators, I feel it is our responsibility to do just that for all of our students.

If you would like to download a copy of Wild for Whales free of charge, simply email Rachel.

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