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  • Subject: Literature
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Moby-Dick is grounded in facts that Melville acquired in his own experience at sea.
2. New England was the center of a prospering whaling industry in the 19th century.
3. Journal keeping was not uncommon among 19th-century Americans.


For this lesson, you will need:
History textbooks and other materials about 19th-century America, especially the whaling industry
Access to reviews of Moby-Dick over the course of its publication history


1. Invite students to demonstrate their knowledge of the whaling trade in 19th-century America and the hardships involved. Ask them to do further research on the topic of the whaling industry in New England in the early 1800s so that they can take on the persona of an imaginary sailor or captain while he is out at sea on a whaling voyage.
2. Based on their research, students should compose at least five journal entries by the sailor or captain. Here are some possible topics for students' research and journal entries:
  • Information about the port of departure
  • Information about the kind of men who signed on for whaling expeditions
  • Information about regions to which the ship travels
  • Information about how the crew spends its day waiting for whale sightings
  • Information about a whale chase and kill
3. Another option you may give students is to use their research to write the journal entries from the point of view of Starbuck, Stubb, or Flask instead of from the point of view of characters whom students make up.
4. To get the feel of what 19th-century journals sound like, suggest that students read some of Melville's own entries. (Remind students that Melville based much of Moby-Dick and other adventures on what he saw for himself when he was at sea.) The following original sources in their latest editions will help:
  • Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, edited by E.M. Metcalf (Harvard University Press, 1948)
  • Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, edited by H.C. Horsford (Princeton University Press, 1955)
  • The Melville Log , edited by Jay Leyda (Harcourt, 1951)
  • Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle, edited by E.M. Metcalf (Harvard University Press, 1953)
5. Direct students to include in their made-up journal entries not merely facts of a fictional voyage but the feelings of the journal keeper as well, especially shifts in emotions over long periods at sea.
6. You can have students decorate the journal entries with designs sailors may have created—sketches of ships, boats, whales—during their voyages.

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Have students generate only one or two journal entries.

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Discussion Questions

1. What do you think is the significance of Moby-Dick's color?
2. Ishmael is allowed to survive the destruction of the Pequod. What views do you think Herman Melville is expressing through this outcome?
3. You learn in the book that both Ahab and Ishmael are Biblical names. What does the use of Biblical names have upon your interpretation of the story?
4. What elements of Moby-Dick do you think made it a failure with audiences at the time it was published, yet make it highly regarded and popular today?
5. In his quest for the great white whale, Ahab seems obsessed with the desire to conquer something else. What do you think that something else is?
6. How valid do you think it is to interpret Moby-Dick as containing an environmental message?

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You can evaluate your students on their journal entries using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: meets the minimum of at least five entries; includes many historical facts appropriate to the time and place of the written pieces; shows correct grammar, usage, and mechanics
Two points: meets the minimum of at least five entries; includes some historical facts appropriate to the time and place of the written pieces; shows mostly correct grammar, usage, and mechanics
One point: does not meet the minimum of at least five entries; does not include historical facts; shows significant errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how many historical facts should be required. With sophisticated classes, you may give students the option to include grammar, usage, and mechanics that may be wrong in standard English but that they can justify as appropriate to the education (or lack thereof) of a persona.

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Reactions to Moby-Dick
The American public did not react positively to Moby-Dick when it was first published. Ask students to track the critical reaction to the novel from its original publication to the current day. They will have to find primary sources such as book reviews from various points in the last 150 years. Ask students not only to report on how critical opinions about the novel have changed but also to suggest why the changes took place.

Disaster News
The Pequod begins its fateful journey from Nantucket to find Moby-Dick on Christmas Day. Pretend you are a 19th-century reporter for the fictitious Nantucket Gazette . Write a short article (150 to 200 words) about the end of the Pequod. Include as much objective information as you can. You may include quotations or information from an interview with Ishmael.

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Suggested Readings

"In Melville's Lifetime, Fame Proved Fickle"
Robert Wernick, Smithsonian, July 1995

Herman Melville, 1846

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The Life and Works of Herman Melville
This site is a publication dedicated to disseminating information about Herman Melville on the Internet. If you need biographical or bibliographical texts on Melville, this is a treasure trove of information on the writer.

Whales in Literature
This site certainly shows the impact whales have had in literature. View the word's etymology and then thumb through texts such as the Bible, Hobbes' Leviathan, and Melville's Moby-Dick.

The World Wide Web Virtual Library: Whale-Watch
Whale watching has become a thrilling and somewhat religious experience for many. At this site the learner can view migration maps and pictures of these gentle giants.

Whales of the World Educational Program
This educational site is one that your students will enjoy. There are many interactive activities that will show your students what whales eat, where they can be viewed, and what the major types of whales are that can be found on our planet.

Baleen Whales
Sea World has designed a visual resource that can be adapted for all age groups. Your students can create a very impressive booklet on baleen whales from the information they gather from this site.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    allegory
Definition: A literary device in which fictional characters symbolically represent a moral or universal principle.
Context: Melville creates a cosmic allegory out of the unglamorous whaling industry.

speaker    idyllic
Definition: Pleasingly beautiful in a simplistic or natural way.
Context: He lived an idyllic childhood until the age of eleven, when his father fell deeply in debt and then unexpectedly died a year later.

speaker    nemesis
Definition: A formidable opponent bent on retribution or vengeance.
Context: For two days, Ahab tries to kill his nemesis, but Moby-Dick will not die.

speaker    premonition
Definition: Forewarning or presentiment of an event.
Context: Melville had a premonition that Moby-Dick would not be accepted by the American public.

speaker    unprecedented
Definition: Never having been done before; without precedent.
Context: It was a time of unprecedented change; the Industrial Revolution was transforming the American landscape.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: language arts
Demonstrates a familiarity with selected literary works of enduring quality.
Demonstrates an understanding of why certain literary works may be considered classics or works of enduring quality and substance. Demonstrates a familiarity with a variety of classic American, British, and world literature and their authors (e.g., through literary allusions and literary criticism).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: the arts
Understands connections among the various art forms and other disciplines.
Knows ways in which various media can be integrated.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: the arts
Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts.
Understands how the communication of ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes used.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: behavioral studies
Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts.
Understands how the communication of ideas relates to the media, techniques, and processes used.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: behavioral studies
Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions.
Understands that conflict between people or groups may arise from competition over ideas, resources, power, and/or status. Understands that conflicts are especially difficult to resolve in situations in which there are few choices and little room for compromise.

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Alisa Soderquist, English, art, and architecture teacher, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia.

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