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Teaching Guide

Teaching Moby-Dick

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Unless you’re teaching a class full of Sea World trainers, your students probably aren’t eager to read this whale tale. Getting their attention can be as difficult as Ahab’s quest for this cetaceous legend. Well, consider yourself the captain, your classroom your ship, and our teaching the guide the harpoon to capture your class.*

In this guide you will find

  • an activity to “trim the fat” from Moby-Dick, making it more digestible.
  • pop culture connections from Led Zeppelin to opera to Conan O’Brien.
  • historical resources including information on Melville’s life, Manifest Destiny, and the Civil War.

*No students were harmed in the making of this teaching guide.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
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Instructions for You

Objective: Students think critically about Melville's depiction of whaling in Moby-Dick. By debating whether Melville is critical of whaling or whether he glorifies it, students:

  • Hone oral argument skills
  • Perform close readings
  • Learn to recognize irony
  • Support their arguments with textual evidence
  • Relate the novel to contemporary issues about energy use and the environment

Teachers should expect to spend one class period introducing the assignment and allowing students to gather evidence, and a second class period to stage the debate.

Step 1: Teachers should begin by leading a discussion about how Melville depicts whaling in the novel.

Some places to begin might be Chapter 81, in which Ishmael says that there is no pity for the old blind whale they kill, in order to "light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men"; and Chapter 105, "Does the Whale Diminish," in which whaling is compared to the annihilation of the American buffalo. By contrast, the teacher might cite Chapter 41, "The Whiteness of the Whale," which seems to make "the fiery hunt" a necessary human search.

See the student instructions below for some recommended discussion questions.

Step 2: Teacher should break students into two large groups, for debating the novel's attitude towards whaling, in the form of the following resolution: "Resolved: Moby-Dick advocates whaling."

Teachers divide class into Pro and Con groups. Students should be divided at random, to encourage them to consider arguments that they might not initially agree with.

Step 3: Students gather in groups during class and collect as much (textual) evidence as possible to support their side of the argument. Students should also anticipate how to address possible counter arguments.

Step 4: Teacher moderates the debate. One student from each group offers an opening statement, and one student from each group a closing statement. Each remaining student must present an argument, the other team rebuts, and the initial student gets to counter – with teams alternating.

The structure should look like this:

Team 1 Student A: Opening argument
Team 2 Student A: Opening argument
Team 2 Student B: Point
Team 1 Student B: Rebuttal
Team 2 Student B: Counter
Team 1 Student C: Point
Team 2 Student C: Rebuttal
Team 1 Student C: Counter
….repeat for as many students in each group…
Team 1 Closing Argument
Team 2 Closing Argument

Step 5: Teacher leads a wrap-up discussion about how there’s enough evidence in Moby-Dick to argue both sides of the debate.

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: 9th & 10th grade Reading 2.3, 2.5, 2.8, 3.5, 3.8, 3.12; Writing 1.6, 2.2; Listening & Speaking 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.6, 1.8, 1.9, 2.2, 2.4, 2.5; 11th & 12th grade Reading 2.4, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.8; Listening & Speaking 1.4, 1.6, 1.8, 1.9, 2.1, 2.3.)

Instructions for Your Students

The excitement of the chase! The blood and gore of the kill! Man challenging the largest beat of the sea! Man destroying the animal kingdom! What are we supposed to think about whaling in Moby-Dick? Is it cruel or glorious? Part of humans striving for a better life for all or part of their reckless destruction of the environment? Here's your chance to decide. In this exercise you'll use your close reading of the novel to debate these issues.

Step 1: Participate in a discussion about the novel, considering some of the following questions:

  1. Does Melville critique the violence involved in whaling or glorify it?
  2. How does Melville use irony, imagery, metaphor, exaggeration, or other rhetorical devices to convey emotions or attitudes towards whaling?
  3. What are the benefits of whaling – economic, spiritual, or otherwise?
  4. Is whaling itself posed as problematic, or just Ahab's particular method?
  5. How does the search for whale oil, and necessity of using it to light lamps in the nineteenth century compare to today's need for gasoline to run cars?
  6. What are the environmental costs of whaling? Are they similar to today's environmental issues?

Step 2: Your teacher will divide you into teams and assign you to either Pro or Con team, to debate the resolution: "Resolved: Moby-Dick advocates whaling."

Step 3: Consult with your group. Gather as much evidence from the novel as possible to support your side of the argument. Also keep in mind that during the debate you'll have to respond to the other group's arguments, so be sure to think about what they might say and come up with counter arguments (things to say in response to their arguments).

Step 4: Decide who will speak when. You'll need 1 person for opening statement, 1 for a closing, and the each remaining student will have a chance to make a point and a rebuttal in between.

Step 5: Let the debate begin!

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6

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