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March 27, 2007 > Whale watching with 5th graders

Whale watching with 5th graders

By Mona Shah

Teachers come and go, but every so often one comes along that you'll always remember. One who makes learning an adventure, one who makes you want to be the very best you can be, one who cares about what happens to you.

Kimberly Pratt is one such teacher. She teaches 5th grade at Cabello Elementary School in the New Haven Unified School District. A field trip with her class though this is not your typical trip - the kids are on a whale watching cruise out of Half Moon Bay! I am with them and their excitement is infectious. How come? Well, let's go back to the beginning.

In September of 2005, Pratt applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Teacher at Sea program. She was one of twenty teachers selected nationally for the 2006 field season. On board the McArthur II, she surveyed marine mammals and seabirds, collected oceanographic data and plankton samples. Additionally, she posted journals and developed curriculum in conjunction with the cruise. (

Returning from the cruise, she was so inspired by the experience at sea, that she wanted her students to learn about our watershed, our oceans and experience being on board a ship looking for whales and dolphins.

In this spirit, she wrote a B-WET grant "Bringing Science to Life for Students, Teachers and the Community" to provide watershed experiences for students, staff development for teachers and community awareness of our local neighborhood. In addition to classroom instruction on pollution awareness, tide pool organisms, research reporting, and marine mammals, whale-watching cruises were added as part of the curriculum.

The experience of being a Teacher at Sea, affected Pratt enormously. In addition to wanting to bring ocean science into her classroom, she was inspired to go back to school to be a marine biologist. She re-enrolled at Chabot College taking math classes in preparation to apply to graduate school. During this time, Pratt also enrolled in a scuba diving class because she thought that to be marine biologist you would also have to be a scuba diver. Oh boy, was she wrong!

Though frightened during her pool sessions, Pratt kept at it to overcome her fear. Her first ocean dive went well enough, but it was her second ocean dive that proved disastrous. During testing for oral inflation of the buoyancy control device (BCD) she started to choke and cough. About 10 feet from the surface she took her last breath - of water - and drowned. A master diver found her 30 feet face down in the sand. When they got her to the surface, she had no pulse and they started rescue breathing and thankfully, she survived the ordeal, still enthusiastic about marine biology.

The B-WET Grant started in September of 2006 and has accomplished great things. Students are excited about science as never before, scoring an average of 84% on water-related tests, 90% of parents stated that their children are learning about the marine environment and 65% stated that their child talks about ocean studies at night.

Pratt's partner teacher, Alisha Valine, shares instruction of the core curriculum. Valine teaches Language Arts/History and Pratt teaches Math and Science. Valine is a product of the New Haven School District. She graduated from Logan High, and chose to give back to her community. Partnering with Pratt has given her an opportunity to infuse the science curriculum into many language arts activities. Valine plans to lead the fifth grade class in the musical production, "Tide Pool Condo's" later this year

Next fall, the B-WET grant will be moving to Alvarado Elementary School in Union City. Leveraging its success, the program has received a second year's funding from NOAA, expanding to 4th graders and incorporating partnerships with Oikonos Ecosystems, Farallones Marine Sanctuary and the Union Sanitary District. Additionally, a Starbucks Foundation Grant for environmental literacy will support project efforts and build a strong connection between language arts and science.

At the end of a very exciting and fun day, the tired children and teachers amble to the bus, ready to go home. Sure beats a day in studying in a classroom!

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