Lessons Learned 4: What I Learned About Learning: Whales (4/5)

Updated: Jul 16

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in Trent DeJong’s series “Lessons Learned.” Check out the first three posts “4 Phases of Teaching,” “What I Learned About Learning in K-2,” and “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 3 and 4,” and stay tuned for “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 5-7.”

Throughout my own education there have been episodes that I now realize taught me something important about teaching.

I went through a phase when I was about 10—I was obsessed with whales. The important thing about this phase was that it had nothing to do with school. And now as a teacher, I wonder if perhaps it ought to have been a part of school.

Sometime when I was ten, I became obsessed with whales and whaling. This obsession was inspired by the character Ned Land played by Kirk Douglas in Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). I thought Ned Land and his harpoon were awesome.

My imagination was lit up by this movie character and his harpoon. I read everything about whales and whaling that I could find. My world was transformed by my interest in the subject. The equipment in the playground became a Boston whaler and the dirt pile in my backyard was the back of a breaching right whale. I fashioned a harpoon and practiced long and hard to increase the accuracy, power and distance of my harpooning. I knew that there were no longer any career possibilities in traditional whaling, but that didn’t matter. All the things I was reading had entered my imagination.

The energy that propelled my learning was nothing more than a personal curiosity. I don’t know what content or skills we learned in grade 3, but the content and skills related to my obsession with whales have stuck with me today. I can still tell you what ambergris is.

Sperm whales eat giant squids that have hard, sharp beaks and other indigestible bits. The ambergris is produced in the whale’s intestines and is thought to coat the sharp beaks in order to protect the digestive system of the whale. This stuff could be found floating on the ocean, on beaches and in the guts of dead sperm whales. It was very valuable, in part because it was used to create perfumes.

I don’t just remember ambergris. My study of whales and whaling lead me into the world of old-fashioned fashion. I learned about corsets. And I can still tell you why lamp oil made from whale blubber is superior to tallow.

And I learned a lot more than whaling; I began to understand more about the technology and economy of the 19th century. I was horrified when my research led me to the impact of modern whaling. This was the beginning of my understanding of environmental stewardship. And, of course, this wasn’t all.

Learning flowed. Questions led to answers and more questions. And it didn’t last only days, or even months; I was into whales for well over a year.

I even tried to read Moby Dick by Herman Melville because it was on the shelf in my Dad’s office. I got up to the description of the interior of the church and that was it, but all my passion and research about whales contributed significantly to my enjoyment of this novel years later.

My “whale phase” was significant.

My wife thinks it’s funny that, when I am clicking through channels, I always stop if there is a show with underwater stuff. I wonder if this tendency is rooted in the lobsters and whales of my early years. I may have passed this trait onto my children. We can all be looking at our phones or chatting, but when we hit upon a shot of a hammerhead shark on the television, all of us are instantly mesmerized.

I once asked my wife what she thought about me getting a whale tattoo. (She rolled her eyes.)

Lesson Learned: A lot of learning can happen when we engage the student’s imagination by tapping into personal interest and curiosity—these are very powerful motivators for sustained learning. So when I can, I let students learn by allowing them to explore their own interests.

Photo by Rudolf Kirchner from Pexels