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.