Whale of a Tale



What is it about whales that makes them such fertile topics for stories, books, anecdotes, and songs? Surely their size is part of the fascination humans have with whales. But beyond that, against all odds, humans from ancient times to the present have had a personal relationship with these giant sea mammals. We have hunted them for food, trade, and money. We watch them and try to decipher their language. And because they are mammals like us, we try to understand their world.

This Learning Center explores traditional and modern stories about whales from several different cultures in a melding of culture and science, literature and personal experience.

Enduring Understandings:

  • The natural environment plays a central role in shaping people, their cultures and art.
  • Storytelling is a vital aspect of cultural preservation and survival.

Essential Questions:

  • What roles does the natural environment play in stories?
  • How might stories that arise in very different environments incorporate the same natural phenomenon?
  • What lessons do stories teach about culture and survival?
  • Why would the life of a whale sometimes be considered more important than the lives of humans?

What You'll Find Here

In this Learning Center, students will read several whale stories and research the environments that generated them. They will look for ways the natural environment plays a central role in shaping each story and for similarities and differences in the way the same phenomenon is used in stories originating from very different natural environments.

As an extension, students can delve more deeply into either literature or science:

  • They can relate these stories and the character of the whales in them with literature from the West -- such as Moby Dick.
  • They can research other natural phenomena such as storms, floods, earthquakes, harvests, hunting and feasting stories from a variety of locations to compare the roles the environment plays in the shaping and telling of the stories.

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will explore the various ways that humans understand their place in the natural and supernatural universe, as illustrated through ancient stories.
  • Students will identify and analyze similarities and differences in narratives from different cultures (for example, ideas of the afterlife, roles and characteristics of deities, types and purposes of myths and cultural stories).
  • Students will recognize common elements of story structure such as character, plot, and message.

Time required:

Three to ten class periods, depending on which activities the class undertakes

Classroom resources:

Internet access for student research and display of online media

Chart paper or transparencies and markers

Whale stories, including the following (available on the Resource close-up pages on this Learning Center):

Worksheets (you can download each of the following handouts by clicking on it. Feel free to print as many copies as you need.

Optional: Large world map, photos of ocean landscapes in Alaska, Canada, Hawai'i, Massachusetts, and, if applicable, your state or territory

To further explore storytelling . . .

On the Home Page of this web site you'll see a list of themes that are explored in its Learning Centers. Click on "Stories and Storytelling" to see other aspects of traditional narratives and the ways they are performed.

For more ideas on teaching the elements of a good story, refer to the Storytelling: Oral Traditions Learning Center at this link.

Activity One: Imagining the natural environment for stories set near the ocean

Activity One: Imagining the natural environment for stories set near the ocean

This Activity will activate and assess students' prior knowledge about the natural environment and, specifically, ocean environments.

  • This is the first of three video clips of Jonathan Perry, Aquinnah Wampanoag from Massachusetts. Consider using two of his points as writing or discussion prompts: 1) His statement that the whales have sacrificed themselves for people; what does he mean? 2) His comparison of whales' lives and importance with humans. Do students agree that in many ways whales are more important than humans? Imagine a whale's life (after undertaking some research) and write about it, comparing it with a human's life.

  • Brainstorm: Ask students to think of natural events that may be observed by people living near the ocean all over the globe, including everyday events like tides, or catastrophic events such as storms, tsunamis, floods, and environmental pollution.  Place their responses on chart paper. Review students' responses. Their responses will probably be based on information they have learned in science. This will allow you to assess prior knowledge and set the stage for the next part of the activity.

If students are slow to begin, prompt them by suggesting current natural events that are affecting people who live near oceans.

  • Ask students to add to the above list the kinds of animals living in the ocean that would be seen by people who lived on the shore. Record responses.

  • Tell students that the class will be reading or hearing stories from Alaska, Canada, Hawai`i and Massachusetts. Have students locate these places on a world map. Either display photos of the locations or direct students to an Internet search for images of the respective locales. Ask students to describe what the coastline looks like and the climate in each place.

  • Look at the responses to the brainstorm and ask students to remove or add to the list.

For stories about whaling . . .

Visit this link to find video clips and ideas about hunting whales in the north Pacific.

The next four video clips on this page provide images of whales, one on the East Coast, the other in the Arcrtic. Use the clips to stimulate student discussion, writing, and research.

The first two clips show a whale stranding on Cape Cod, traditional home of the Wamponoag people.

  • Have students watch this clip, taken in 2002. If this had happened near their home, what would they have done? Do a fast-write on the topic.

This closer view of the pilot whale stranding on Cape Cod shows a young whale and its mother. Students can hear the whales' vocalizations.

  • Have students research pilot whales' life cycles, feeding habits, and geographic range. Ask them to try to answer the questions, "Why did these pilot whales become stranded? Does it happen often?" A useful web site can be accessed through this link.

  • Have students write a story based on this event. It may be either a first-person narrative or a story told from the whales' point of view.

This video clip shows gray whales trapped in the ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, in the fall of 1988. Gray whales are no longer hunted by the Iñupiat or Yupiget -- they're said to be too feisty -- but were once a source of food for the indigenous people. These whales were able to breathe because Roy Amagoak cut a large rectangle into the ice so they could be exposed to the air, but they could not swim to open water because the ice was so thick. Have a student conduct Internet research to find out what happened to the whales. (Note: a feature film is due out in 2012 about the incident.)

In contrast to gray whales, bowhead whales are hunted today by the Iñupiaq of the North Slope of Alaska and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik of western Alaska.

This video clip might offer a surprising view to your students of a part of the ocean most are not familiar with: life on the frozen Arctic Ocean. Have students watch it and discuss what they notice. If no one mentions it, bring out the point that cooperation involving the entire community is the only way the people can harvest the whale. Ask for examples of community-wide cooperation in your community.

Tell students to keep these images in mind as they read one of the stories in this Learning Center, a non-traditional story set in northern Alaska called Whale Snow.

Activity Two: Exploring how different cultures use the whale in story

Activity Two: Exploring how different cultures use the whale in story

  • Introduce the lesson: Students will explore how whales, which constitute a family of animals well known by people who live near oceans, are used as the subject for stories told in four places with very different environments and cultures: Alaska, Canada, Hawai`i, and Massachusetts. As an introduction, together read Handout A, "Beached Whales and Great Tales."
  • Provide students with the five stories (download and print or refer students to the appropriate video clips; see the Materials section on the first page of this Learning Center). Locate the stories' homes on a map and review the climate and terrain at each location.
  • Students will read each of the three written whale stories with the vocal and physical expressiveness of a storyteller.
  • Each of the stories shows the whale as a particular character with a personality or motivation. Talk about the whales' various personae, as illustrated in the stories. What do these different glimpses into whales' characters reveal about the cultures that produced the stories?
  • Form groups of four to five students and provide each group with a copy of Handout B. Demonstrate how to record the data (a chart with examples is provided in the handout) and allow students to contrast the stories they read and watch.
  • Ask groups to report results while you record the answers. Ask students to identify any contradictions among the group responses. Groups with contradictory information should give evidence from the stories to justify. Eliminate from the list any similarities that can't be proven. Repeat the activity, this time looking for differences using Handout C.
  • Summary: Ask students to explain: 1) Why a part of the natural environment (in this lesson it was a whale) can become the topic of a story; 2) Why people living in very different places might create stories about the same animal; and 3) Why we could find both elements that were the same and elements that were different among the stories.
  • Comparing and contrasting story elements:

    Each story has unique characteristics, but many similar components.  In class discussion, as you review students' completed Handouts B and C, consider the basic common elements of story structure like character, setting, plot, morals and lessons.


    • Do the characters in the stories share any similar physical attributes?
    • Do the characters have unique or special abilities?
    • Do the characters relate to their environment in similar ways?
    • Are the characters generalized or are they specific individuals?


    • When and where does each story take place?


    • What is the problem that faces each character?
    • What is the solution to the problem in each story?

    Moral or message

    • What was the moral, lesson, or message that the characters learned at the end of each story?
    • What moral, lesson, or message is the audience supposed to learn from the story?

    Teacher Notes:

    • Help students with unfamiliar vocabulary in the stories.
    • You may keep on display a world map with the stories' locations marked with push-pins or images that represent each coastal area.
    • Consider asking students to write summaries of similarities and differences individually or in groups, and then discuss their ideas in class.


    Stories and Culture

    This Learning Center focuses on stories and environment. For another perspective, visit the Stories and Culture Learning Center.

    Resource close-up: The Story of Hamumu

    Resource close-up: The Story of Hamumu


    Go to the Hawai'i Alive Web site to watch the video of The Hamumu Story told by a traditional storyteller.  Then read the story aloud to your class using descriptive storytelling techniques like hand gestures and voice changes.

    Recognizing common elements of story structure, i.e. character, plot, and moral, students will use Handout B and  Handout C and and compare and contrast this story with stories from Alaska, Canada, and Massachusetts. A written version of this story is available as Handout D.

    For another story from Hawai'i . . .

    Refer to the Learning Center "Maui and the Creation of the Islands" on this web site.

    Resource close-up: The Legend of Moshup

    Resource close-up: The Legend of Moshup

    Have your students watch this video of Jonathan Perry telling the story of Moshop and the Cliffs of Aquinnah. Aquinnah is traditional name for the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

    A short written version of the Moshup and the Whale story can be downloaded from this link.

    Recognizing common elements of story structure, i.e. character, plot, and moral, students will use Handout B and Handout C have to compare and contrast this story with stories from Alaska, Canada, and Hawai'i.

    Resource close-up: Raven And The Whale

    Resource close-up: Raven And The Whale

    Raven is an important being throughout Alaska Native cultures. He created the earth, brought fresh water to the world, and brought light to the world. He was a creator -- but he was also a trickster, an individual with great appetites who was often interested only in what would benefit him personally. In fact, his creations on behalf of humankind were often accidental, occurring as a by-product of his quest for food or some other end.

    This page contains two versions of a well-known Raven story. The first comes from the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska. To learn more about them, click this link.

    "Raven in The Whale" can be found at this link: http://jukebox.uaf.edu/drybay/htm/ravwhale.htm. It does not have an audio component, but you can read the story aloud to your class.  You may also want to include pictures of Alaskan landscapes from the southeastern portion of the state.

    Using Handout B and Handout C compare and contrast this story with the other whale stories from Massachusetts, Alaska, and Hawai'i.

    The version of Raven and the Whale in this video clip comes from the Canadian Inuit. Have students locate the homeland of the Inuit.

    After students watch the video, discuss the visuals: did they add to the experience?  Then compare and contrast the story, using Handout B and Handout C, with the Tlingit Raven story and with whale stories from Hawai'i and Massachusetts.

    Other Raven Stories

    Another Raven Story, "How Raven Gave Light to the World," is depicted in another Learning Center (click on the highlighted words to go there) on this web site.

    Enrichment Activity: "Whale Snow"

    Enrichment Activity: "Whale Snow"

    Whale Snow is a story about the relationship between the Iñupiaq people and the bowhead whale. The story is fiction; that is, it is not a traditional story passed down orally, although it is set in a part of the country where whales and whaling are essential to human livelihood.

    You can purchase the book or see the illustrations in the Iñupiaq version of the book, available by following the link below.

    In the story, Amiqqaq, a young boy, and his father visit a whaling camp on the frozen ocean and he perches on top of a dead bowhead whale. Amiqqaq comes to realize the whale's spirit lives in the fellowship of his people as they feast on the whale. Amiqqaq's grandmother explains that the whale has changed into the "fat snow;" snowflakes as big as birds and massive ice chunks as big as houses around their village.

    Have students perform Whale Snow by using the readers' theatre script which has roles for 20 student actors and is available at the author's website (link below).

    To visit the Whale Snow author's website and download the Readers' Theatre Script, go to http://www.debbydahledwardson.com/whale_snow_89219.htm

    View this video clip showing community members pulling a bowhead whale onto shore ice to help students visualize the action in Whale Snow.

    Have students fill in the appropriate columns on Handout B and Handout C. Then in class discussion compare and contrast this story with the tradditional whale stories set in Alaska, Canada, Hawai`i and Massachusetts. Consider: How does this story, which was made up by the author based on her intimate knowledge of the culture, compare with the traditional stories students have read? Guide students to consider the following:

    • Main characters

    • The whale as a character

    • Setting

    • Descriptive language

    • When the story takes place

    • Spiritual dimensions or understandings in the story

    • Message or teaching of the story

    • Whether the story is sacred or not

    Activity Three: What is the Story from our own Biome?

    Activity Three: What is the Story from our own Biome?

    All of the whale stories in this Learning Center stem directly from the environments of the people who told or wrote them. Have students watch this video of Jonathon Perry and discuss or do a fast-write on the following topics:

    • What ties you to your place on the earth?

    • Do you feel connected in any way to this place? Write a poem about that sense of connection.

    • The Moshup story is a sacred story about a supernatural being and how he created the world as we know it today. Explore the creation stories from your region. In what ways are they like the Moshup story?

    • Science answers questions that are different from those answered by religion. Look at your environment as a scientist might and explain how the landforms and waterways were formed.

    Define "biome." If necessary, have students undertake research to learn what a biome is, and which biome you live in.

    Leave the classroom and take a tour of a part of your biome -- either just outside the classroom or in a natural setting within your community. Help students identify key elements in the environment that affect them on a regular basis. Divide the class into small groups, each charged with making several rounds of observations about the events that affect them and the places you visit on your fieldtrip.

    You may use either the natural environment or the built environment in this activity. Examples of phenomena to observe include the weather, natural places on school grounds, the classroom itself or the class pet or aquarium.

    Have students work together to write a story that incorporates local natural phenomena, and then perform it in dramatic rendering to the class.

    Check for Understanding and Assessment

    Check for Understanding and Assessment

    Summative Assessment for Students:

    As a wrap-up activity to help your students tie together the enduring understandings they have gained from this Learning Center, ask them to undertake one or more of the following:

    Identify any stories in your own family heritage with direct connections to your biome, and describe:

    • What kind of lessons they tell and how the lessons are used in your immediate culture;
    • What additional stories have been passed down orally to you that derive from your natural environment;
    • What other kinds of traditional knowledge (beyond stories) have been passed down to you from your family.

    Explain in writing or small-group discussions (with answers recorded and reported to the whole class):

    • How whales are revered in each of the cultures depicted in this Learning Center;
    • What roles whales play in each of the stories;
    • What relationship is implied or made explicit between humans and whales in the stories.

    Choose one of the stories and draw a storyboard.  Each storyboard should reflect the key elements of story structure including character, setting, plot, and message.

    Write a comparison paper or draw scenes from each story that portray the similarities and differences in the stories. Explain why these similarities and differences exist.

    National Academic Standards

    National Academic Standards

    National Language Arts Standard 3

    Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

    National Language Arts Standard 4

    Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

    National Language Arts Standard 7

    Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

    National Language Arts Standard 8

    Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

    National Language Arts Standard 9

    Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

    National Language Arts Standard 12

    Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

    National Science Standard NS 5-8.3 Life Science

    As a result of activities in Grades 5 through 8 all students should develop understanding of populations and ecosystems.