Citizen Advocates, Plastic Pollution and Saving Blue Whales: Buddy Classes’ Conservation Curriculum

Mount Madonna School (MMS) fifth grade students are learning a lot about whales, especially blue whales, this school year. And although these whales are the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, fifth graders say these endangered ocean giants need help and protection from human-caused environmental threats to their survival.

“Blue whales are on the verge of extinction because of plastic pollution,” warned fifth graders Aiden Powers, Henry Anderson, Rory Kayne, and Trip Woodrow in a research report they produced. ”Some 14 billion pounds of plastic goes into the ocean each year, meaning that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish and marine mammals in Earth’s oceans.”

Fifth grade’s year-long, cross-curricular blue whale project includes several ambitious components: partnering with their ninth grade buddies and local conservation organizations for public presentations, education, and a #CutOutCutlery campaign to reduce single-use takeout plastic; writing, filming, and editing an original educational movie; creating and coding an online, interactive educational whale game; engaging the school community and broader public in an outdoor trash cleanup challenge; and sharing resources to teach kindergarten buddies about whale conservation.

“The blue whale can grow up to 98 feet – or 30 meters – long!” shared students Jade McReynolds, Marlowe Yen, Minami Wu, and Sophia Krawetz. “For comparison, this about three school buses long! Blue whales eat mostly krill and can eat four to eight tons of krill in a day! These whales typically swim at a speed of about five miles an hour while feeding or traveling. They communicate through singing and moans which can be heard for miles and miles underwater.”

“Blue whales follow migration patterns,” added classmates Deja Orozco, Sasha Kazarian and Sera Krawetz. “During the feeding season they fill up on krill in the polar waters, then they migrate to tropical waters. Imagine you are swimming in the Monterey Bay with over 180 different species of animals, including blue whales.”

Beyond their personal and collective learning, MMS fifth grade students are determined to educate the broader public about steps each person can take to help protect whales, reduce plastic pollution in the environment and create positive change. 

Buddy Classes’ Conservation Curriculum 

Each year the MMS ninth and fifth grade classes are paired up as buddies. This year COVID-safety precautions have kept the classes physically separate, however both classes meet together weekly via Zoom to engage in parallel and shared environment-related conservation curriculum.

“The ninth graders are integrating real-world problem solving into their marine biology curriculum,” said teacher Nicole Silva. “While the ninth graders develop a strong foundation in both their biology and marine biology class (which they take simultaneously) in terms of understanding the ecology, ecological relationships, phyla and anatomy and physiology of animals, students also study the immediate and long-term issues and problems we face in our marine environment.”

Ninth grade students read the non-fiction book Death and Life of Monterey Bay by Carolyn Sotka and Stephen Palumbi, and learned about the history of the Monterey Bay. Students understand that the beautiful, healthy Monterey Marine Sanctuary has not always been as they see it today and that it has undergone many various phases of overfishing and pollution. Due to the efforts of some strong and passionate individuals, the Monterey Bay has been protected and allowed to recover to its current biologically and ecologically rich state.

“As part of their learning process, ninth graders watch documentaries, do labs and work with their fifth grade buddies to create awareness on how and what we need to do to continue to protect the Monterey Bay as well as the greater ocean environment,” commented Silva.

In addition to working with fifth graders on their blue whale environmental project, students are also engaging with advocates such as Jackie Nuñez of The Last Plastic Straw (a project of the Plastic Pollution Coalition), to create public service announcements through posters, memes, films, commercials, etc. to bring awareness to how we are negatively affecting the environment and action items about ways in which people can help. Nuñez will Zoom with both classes for an educational presentation.

Fifth and ninth grade students will work on the #CutOutCutlery project to create public service announcements to use in soliciting local businesses to ask their customers if they want utensils, straws or condiment cups without automatically putting them in the bag, which many times goes to waste.

“This is a problem that has increased dramatically with COVID,” commented fifth grade teacher Jessica Cambell. “Most people don’t need the cutlery and condiment cups as they are taking the food home to eat. Students are asking restaurants to make this an “opt in” and not automatically add these items to every order. Fifth grade students will begin by contacting the restaurants and stores where they get their own takeout from.”

“In working on this issue, students will gain firsthand knowledge about how to be a citizen advocate,” said Silva, “and work towards a good within their local community.”

Contacting and Connecting with Elected Representatives

Fifth graders are writing letters to California Governor Gavin Newsom and other elected officials, asking for their support on issues related to whale conservation: legislation mandating that container ships steer clear of whale migration routes; the #CutOutCutlery campaign; and to request enforcing a stronger ban on single-use plastic bags (which has significantly lapsed during COVID); and the need to prioritize debris removal from the state’s beaches.

In the near future, fifth grade students may also have the opportunity to Zoom with Congressman Jimmy Panetta, who has expressed interest in meeting with the students to discuss protecting blue whales and the idea of having a “Blue Whale Day” to honor them.

Maker’s Lab: Coding an Educational Whale Game

As part of the educational “product” of their project, fifth grade students are working with teacher Lisa Catterall in Maker’s Lab to create an interactive computer game to teach players about whales.

“The kids may not have the time, experience, and number of coders required to accomplish their original idea of making a Hay Day-type of game starring whales,” said Catterall. “When they told me they liked The Oregon Trail game, however, I knew we had a chance to turn their research on the obstacles whales face during migration into an immersive adventure game. It will likely be a text-based game coded in Python, and embedded in a website that includes original art, and if we have time, a simple graphics game of the whales feeding at their feeding grounds.

“I really enjoyed text games like Zork at their age,” she continued, “and am excited to guide them through creating a story and parameters to match their research. They are educating me on what whales go through in their breeding lifecycle across the oceans in the process of making this game. I hope we can make something functional to share with the community; these kids are ambitious and hard-working!”

Creating an Original, Educational iMovie

Creating an original, educational iMovie is a significant piece of fifth grade’s environmental project. A mock company is created and job roles and responsibilities assigned, integrating many cross-curricular elements. This year, with the significant COVID safety precautions, actually creating the movie will present significant – but not insurmountable – challenges.

“It is a more limited world in many respects,” observed Cambell. “We now have a green screen so that will help, and we will look at creating the movie without kids getting too close to one another. Our hope is to be able to share the completed version as a teaching tool with the broader community and the like-minded organizations, who will help put it out there.”

The class began working on the script in January. When that is complete, filming and editing will commence in February and March. Cambell said the students plan to have the finished movie available for viewing – and for sale – by mid-June. Proceeds from the sale of the movie DVD will benefit local whale conservation organizations.

Public Spaces Clean-up Challenge

In March or April fifth grade students will announce a public outdoor clean-up event. The students want to create a public challenge to engage the school community and public to clean up waste outside – in public spaces, along creeks and beaches.

“When COVID hit and so many things were shut down, people were still encouraged to get outside for recreation,” noted Cambell. “This continues to result in much more outdoor trash and waste. Fifth graders want to involve the community in helping to address this problem.”

Save the Whales 

In late spring, fifth grade students are planning to do a livestream Q&A presentation facilitated by the Plastic Pollution Coalition to share their research and project; the date hasn’t yet been selected.

Students have connected with Maris Sidenstecker II, co-founder and executive director of Save the Whales. Sidenstecker, who will give a presentation to the class in March, has asked the students to work with Save the Whales in urging the State of California to designate a day honoring blue whales. When their iMovie is complete, students will also share a shorter, edited version with Sidenstecker to show on the organization’s website. 

Fifth Graders’ “Lessons” for their Kindergarten Buddies

In addition to working on conservation curriculum with their older ninth grade buddies, the fifth grade students are big buddies to the kindergarten students. They have “gathered” remotely, via Zoom this school year, and shared handmade Thanksgiving and snowpeople holiday cards.

Later in the spring, each fifth grade student will make their kindergarten buddy something to teach them about blue whales, based on each fifth graders’ choice and knowledge of their little buddy. Some may choose to write a story, make a coloring page, share a song or a poem with hand gestures – or event an art piece.

“We have to do something to help, shared fifth graders Aiden Powers, Henry Anderson, Rory Kayne, and Trip Woodrow. “Over 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to plastic

Pollution. Blue whales end up eating it is because of the way they eat by lunging through huge swarms of krill with their mouths wide open. If there is any plastic in that area, they consume it as well. As a result, blue whales ingest more than 88 pounds of plastic a day. For example, when a blue whale consumes plastic it piles up in its stomach and makes it feel full, although it is actually starving to death. We can stop this by reducing, reusing, and recycling all metal, plastic and glass products.”

“These types of projects inspire me because I get to see students work towards a common goal, work with students across age and grade levels and work towards a real and tangible goal using their science knowledge combined with their creativity and passion,” commented Silva. “It is beautiful to witness students apply what they have learned for greater good in the world in which they live.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.