Song for a Whale | Literature Based Unit Study

As I was previewing read-aloud for a unit study featuring Helen Keller, I fell in love with Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly. As I continued to dream and plan, the book ended up taking center stage as my unit study morphed in front of my eyes. We thoroughly enjoyed this unit as we explored sound and how it works, the wonder of whales, and even the great ship Titanic.

This time I wanted to provide a lot more information and resources for you at the end of the unit. However, I’m learning time and again, that my dreams are much bigger than reality.

I did create multiple YouTube videos showcasing the various parts of our unit below – focusing on our plans and resources. I think in the future, I may go back to having only a book showcase and maybe one or two videos, but I would love your feedback. I want to provide things in a way that is helpful for you.


Planning the Unit Study

Every unit study I plan begins with my planning template. I go into more detail about how I plan, as well as offering my planning template as a free download in this post.

Sometimes it’s helpful to see how someone else puts everything together in a schedule. You’re welcome to look at these for ideas or follow them as they are. Either way, here are my unit study lesson plans for you to download for FREE.


Read Aloud

This is our first truly literature-based unit study. Not only is the read aloud a great way for us to spend time as a family and bring learning to life, it’s actually the backbone of our entire unit.

Iris struggles to relate to the kids in her school as the only deaf person in a hearing world. Instead of hanging out with friends, she spends her free time fixing old radios. She loves to feel the rumble that comes from the antique machines when she finally gets them working just right. 

One day at school, her teacher introduces her to a blue whale who’s song is different from all other whales. The whale, Blue 55, appears to travel alone and has unique migrating patterns. Iris is immediately enamored with the story and works up a plan to help Blue 55 hear a song he can understand and to know he’s not alone.

This is a fantastic story that covers so many topics, but is ultimately a tale about finding your voice when you feel alone.


Non-Fiction Spines

This unit all began with the chapters about Helen Keller from America’s Story Volume 2. I had originally planned on doing a unit about the human body with a focus on the five senses. I wanted to include a read aloud with a main character who was blind or deaf. In my hunt for the perfect read aloud I came across Song for a Whale, and before long, the unit study completely transformed and my non-fiction spines became background supplements rather than central fixtures of the unit.

I did feel like learning about Helen Keller and talking a bit about being deaf and blind helped build a level of understanding for Iris, the main character in the story. I also think studying more about sound was a fantastic addition because it’s a big part of the story. However, by the time we got to Louis Brielle and learning about sight we were diving so deeply into other elements of the story that I felt like continuing to go with my plan would be a list checking endeavor, taking time and energy from enthusiastic learning that was happening organically. I decided to scrap that part of my plan.

History

Science

  • God’s Design Physical World – Heat & Energy | Unit 5: Waves & Sound | Unit 6: Light (You could also use the smaller volume that just contains the Inventions and Technology portion of God’s Design Physical World)
  • God’s Design for Life – This is used very briefly for two individual lessons on the human ear and the human eye.

Additional and Alternative Options

  • Helen Keller by Margaret Davidson (Scholastic Biography) – This would work as an engaging alternative to the Hellen Keller Story in America’s Story 2.
  • The Usborne Science Encyclopedia – This is a fantastic science resource that you can work through at your own pace. There are also additional internet links like videos, online interactive activities, printable images and more. These are the pages that may be particularly relevant to this unit:
    • 138-140 (Floating, Ships, & Boats)
    • 188 (Seas & Oceans)
    • 202-213 (Sound)
    • 214-224 (Light)
    • 226 (TV& Radio)
    • 304 (Moving & Water)
    • 370-373 (Eyes & Ears).
  • Marine Science for Kids by Josh and Bethanie Hesterman – This would be a great option if you wanted to focus more on marine science and less on the physics of light and sound. It includes a great timeline at the beginning with some fascinating discoveries and scientists in the field of marine biology. Any of these could easily be substituted for the history topics we covered for this unit. Not only is the text engaging, but it’s loaded with activities and experiments (there’s even a special feature about a whale researcher). Topics covered include:
    • Getting to Know the Marine Environment
    • Coastal Communities
    • Life in the Open Seas
    • Diving Deeper
    • Rivers, Streams, Lakes, and Ponds
    • Our Connected Earth
    • Making a Difference.

Videos

This unit came with many, many opportunities to enjoy some fantastic documentaries and films together. These were some of our favorites:

  • Signing Time – There are so many Signing Time videos. Pick the one that looks most interesting to your family and have fun learning to sign like Iris and her friends and family.
  • The Loneliest Whale Documentary – If you only watch one documentary for this unit, it should be this one! This is all about the whale Blue 55 in the book was based on. It gives some great background and insight. (There are a few graphic scenes of animals being killed.)
  • Octonauts (Netflix) – Octonauts is a fun kid series on Netflix that explores loads of underwater animals. We started watching it for this unit and my kids quickly fell in love. It’s targeted at kids ages 4-8 and is highly education. My 11-year old enjoyed the movies that are available too. (If you have a sensitive 4 or 5 year-old, you may want to watch an episode ahead as some of them can be intense for that age.)
  • Wild Kratts – There are several whale or ocean related episodes of Wild Kratts. We had fun looking through them to see what we could find.
  • Secrets of the Whales (on Disney+) – Secrets of the Whales is a fantastic National Geographic docuseries that explores the lives of different types of whales. I highly recommend these amazing episodes.
  • Finding Dory (On Disney+) – Finding Dory has a similar feel to finding Nemo as Dory remembers she has a family. She’s on a quest to find them and runs into some exciting creatures along the way including a Beluga whale, a Whale Shark, an Octopus and more. This one is great for the whole family.

Unit Projects

We didn’t have one project that ran across the course of the unit. Rather, we did a bunch of little projects here and there. These are a few of the resources we used along the way.

  • Scrunch Map – We used this to track the places Iris traveled in the story.
  • Timeline Binder – We added Helen Keller and Louis Braille to our History binders.
  • Braille Trail – We didn’t end up getting to this part of our unit study, but the student pages on this resource look absolutely phenomenal. I highly recommend them for any study of Louis Braille.
  • All About Whales Lesson Pack – We used several pages from this pack and enjoyed them all. We learned a lot and were able to put some of the things we were using into practice with some of the included activities. ($3.99 at time of writing)

Writing, Grammar, and Vocabulary

  • Poetry Writing Unit – I found this poetry unit on Teachers Pay Teachers, and it was absolutely amazing. I love how it walks you through writing each type of poetry step-by-step. Depending on the needs of your family, you could work on one step per day, covering fewer types of poetry or you could pick a few types to explore and spend a whole week on each one.
  • Grammar Galaxy – We only used one lesson from Grammar Galaxy this time, but it was perfect. We did the lesson on shape poems which was an amazing fit. It worked well as we talked about Iris’s hand shape poetry in the book.
  • Word of the Week – As usual, I pulled some fun words from our read alouds and the kids (generally) enjoyed exploring their picks. You can get the worksheets we use for FREE right here on Ticket to Learning.
  • Intentional Copywork – I’ve been taking the Roots Entwined class from Rooted in Language, and am learning how to more effectively use copywork in our homeschool. We work with one passage from our read aloud per week and use this as an opportunity to apply what we are learning in spelling and grammar. With my oldest, we have a four-day rhythm:
    • Day 1 – A comprehension activity or focus on a literary element
    • Day 2 – Word study with a focus on spelling, and word parts
    • Day 3 – Grammar and mechanics
    • Day 4 – Copywork (Copy the passage).
  • All About Spelling – When I’m looking for spelling concepts and rules to cover in our copywork, I use All About Spelling. We’re working our way through the book and I look for passages that have the spelling rules we’re focusing on.

Math

For math this time around we worked through the book A Math Journey Under the Ocean. I used videos from Math Antics as well as resources in Math on the Level to introduce the concepts. We played some fun ocean themed games including battleship to help us practice coordinates. We covered concepts like positive and negative numbers, percentages, graphs, proportions, area and perimeter and more. We weren’t able to finish the whole book, but building on the concepts presented in it helped math feel more relevant and meaningful.

Here’s a fun game I made for us to practice our positive and negative numbers. This can be used for introducing the concept or for practicing adding and subtracting with positive and negative numbers. There’s also a bonus worksheet to practice ship directions. Enjoy the free download here.


Preschool and Kindergarten

I have a little one in the mix in our homeschool. As much as it’s great for little ones to follow along and pick up what their older ones are learning around them, I think it’s also good to tailor some learning experiences to their unique developmental needs.

This time around I incorporated an ocean-themed unit along with our main unit for my little one. As much as possible I tried to match activities up with what her big brothers were doing for the day, but sometimes I took things in another direction just for her.

I found that taking some extra time to spend with her not only enhanced her experience, but it added to what we were doing with her brothers as well.

I had hoped to make an entire blog post dedicated to our ocean themed preschool, but I just don’t have the time. Instead, you can find a schedule and links to all the activities and materials we used in my Song for a Whale lesson plans. Just look at the “Preschool” column. I’ve also included alternate ideas and books if some are difficult for you to find.

Here’s a peek at just a few of the things I had planed for our unit. This video is also included in the playlist above, but I included it here as a stand-alone to make it easier for you.


Book Basket

Book basket books are books I set out for my kids to look through on their own, or for me to read to them. (It usually ends up with all of us gathered together for more read aloud time – which is totally fine with me.) We set aside at lest 15 minutes a day to look through the basket, and I rotate the books regularly. If there’s a topic my kids want to know more about, I try to find books on that topic to add to our basket.

To me, this is one of the MOST valuable parts of our unit study as it gives the kids the opportunity to branch both branch out and dive into topics and ideas that interest them most. I feel like the book basked adds so much richness to our homeschool.

For a look of the books in our book basket, be sure to check out this blog post or the video below.


Games & Extras

We like to add trivia and logic games to our morning basket. This time around I thought I would specifically have theme related things available for the kids during our read aloud time as well. The kids didn’t end up using them as much as I would have liked, so maybe I won’t do that again next time.

  • Whales and Dolphins Tube – I think these were really a great addition. We talked about the different kinds of whales and used them for all sorts of activities. My three-year-old particularly enjoyed adding them to her bath time.
  • EuroGraphics Whales and Dolphins 1000 Piece Puzzle – I think this was a bit ambitious for my oldest to tackle on his own. Had I used the audio book some and worked on this with him I think it would have been fantastic. We did reference the image on the box a lot, however, as we were trying to get a sense for whale sizes.
  • Melissa & Doug Search Beneath the Waves Floor Puzzle – This was a lot of fun for my younger kids and they put it together several times. The Seek and Find aspects makes it even more engaging.
  • Color Catch – I actually really enjoyed this logic game. I picked it to go with the vision and light part of our unit, which we never did. I did pull out the game a few times, but I think the kids are burning out a big from logic games, so we may leave them out of our units for a while.
  • Professor Noggin’s Life in the Ocean – I had originally purchased the Human Body version of Professor Noggin for this unit, but when the unit direction began to change, I decided we would skip Professor Noggin altogether and try something different. I was surprised by how much everyone missed having the trivia questions to begin our morning time. I promptly purchased the Ocean version and we have all enjoyed it greatly.
  • Don’t Rock the Boat – I initially purchased this for an upcoming unit, but when the kids became interested in learning more about ships and boats and the Titanic from our reading in Song for a Whale, I couldn’t resist bringing it out. The older kids really enjoyed playing to see how many pieces the could stack before the boat tipped. My three-year-old played that some, but she has had hours of fun simply doing some imaginative play with the game pieces.

Drawing/Activity Books

For our last unit study, these kinds of books were a big hit while I was reading, however, this time around, the kids found other things to do. I think they would have been happy to do any of these as a scheduled activity or if I took the time to sit down and do them too. I probably could have turned on the audio book and done these some.

Field Trip

We had an excellent time going whale watching with Puget Sound Express near Seattle, WA. It was an eight hour drive for us to get there, but we were able to rent an Air B&B and stay a couple nights. It was totally worth it.

The ship was nice and warm and super comfortable, with plenty of room to move around. All of the crew were naturalists and very knowledgeable about the wildlife in the area. They work with other whale watchers to help find wildlife for us to see. On our expedition, we saw two Orca pods plus some harbor seals and all kinds of birds.

Of course, when it comes to wildlife, you never know what you’re going to see, but we were in for a special treat. One of the pods we saw had young Orcas as well as adult females. The adults were actually teaching the younger ones how to hunt a harbor seal. We were far enough away that we couldn’t see any gore, but we saw all sorts of amazing hunting behaviors.

This was a fantastic way to close out our unit, and it got us talking about taking a full cruise to Alaska someday with the hope of seeing even more whales along the way.


Overall this unit was a big success. We enjoyed breaking down the barriers of the plan and following rabbit trails a bit more and it was absolutely wonderful. Even if you don’t do a full unit study, I highly recommend reading Song for a Whale with your family – especially kids who might feel a little alone.

I’d love to hear if you try any of theses activities or what you’re family thought of Song for a Whale. Are there any great resources we missed? I’m always happy to read your comments.

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