Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher – A Unit Plan


Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Viterbo University


Group Discussion Questions (for parents, teachers, reading specialists, and librarians):


  • There are some obvious themes in this book that would appeal to young adult readers.  Come prepared to discuss any of the following.  Mark passages in the book that help to illustrate how the theme is developed.


ü      Pursuit of an authentic “self”.

ü      Effects of racism on an individual.

ü      How do we communicate?

ü      The role “fate” plays in my life.

ü      Social structures in life (school).

ü      Power dynamics in life.

ü      The role athletics play in life.

ü      Civil disobedience

ü      Domestic abuse


  • How are families represented in this book?  What can we learn from the different family types that appear in the novel?
  • Did you like TJ?  What motivates him?  Would you like him to be your son?  Would you want him to date your daughter?  Should he have tanked that last race?
  • Were the supporting cast well developed?
  • What pivotal decisions does TJ make in the novel?  How and why are those decisions made?  What are the results of the decisions?
  • The “essence” of the book seems to be the tension between “society” and the “individual.”  We see this played out in the “team” versus the “rebel,” in the Spokane community versus diversity, as well as in Mr. Simet versus the administration.  Is TJ another anti-authoritarian in the American tradition of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield?  If so, do we see him as heroic or a threat?  (How would you respond to TJ if he were a student in your class?)
  • Is the book more about making connections with others than rebelling against others?
  • What are the hazards or risks in being a TJ personality?
  • The language in this selection is “realistic.”  Or is it?  Did you hear TJ’s voice or did you hear Chris Crutcher’s voice?  Is there a difference?  What was your response to TJ’s humor? To the author’s use of obscenities?  Read “The Censorship Connection” at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/winter98/censorship.html. 
  • What lessons about living can a reader learn from Whale Talk?
  • If you have read other Chris Crutcher books, compare Whale Talk to his other work.  If this is your first exposure to Crutcher, then what are your impressions? Click on  http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?isbn13=9780060502492&displayType=readingGuide for an Introduction to Chris Crutcher’s King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography.
  • Were you satisfied with the conclusion of the novel?  Or was it a “convenient” conclusion?
  • Did you like this book?  Would you recommend it to others?  Why?  What does it have to offer readers?


Some suggested teaching plans for Whale Talk


Group Work (Literature Circles):


Discussion Director:

  • Develop a list of questions that your group might want to discuss about this part of the Whale Talk.
  • Keep the discussion on task.


Literary Luminary:

  • Locate a few special sections of the novel that you would like to read aloud to the group.  The passage may be something you found funny, puzzling, provocative, controversial, informative, powerful, or important to the development of the plot, theme, character.
  • Lead the discussion of the passages you chose.



  • Find connections between this book and the “world outside.”  This means connecting Whale Talk to your own experiences, to things at school, in your neighborhood, to similar events at other times and places, to other people or problems, or other writings on the same topic by this author or other authors.



  • Prepare a brief summary of the day’s assigned reading.  Give a brief synopsis that conveys the gist, key points, main highlights, the essence of the reading assignment.
  • List the key points.
  • Track carefully the plot, setting, and characters.


Vocabulary Enricher:

  • List words in the book that you find especially important.  Include the denotation and connotation.
  • What words are repeated often?
  • What words are exotic?
  • What words have multiple meanings?
  • What words sent you to the dictionary?



  • Research background information on any topic related to the book, the period, the setting, or author.


More suggestions for a lesson plan on Whale Talk


Group or Individual Projects:


  • Research Taoism and write a brief summary of what you learn.  How is Taoism important to the novel?  The Taoism Information Page can be found at http://www.vl-site.org/taoism/index.html  
  • Research whales.  Find out how whales “communicate.”  Why is this information important in this book?  (There are many web sites on how whales communicate.  Click on http://www.buzzle.com/articles/how-do-whales-communicate-with-each-other.html  to find out about interspecies communication.)
  • Research white supremacist groups and write a brief summary of what you learn.
  • Be nice to someone in your school who often takes the brunt of cruel pranks.  Record your actions and responses for several days in a journal.
  • Go on the internet and find out about Chris Crutcher.  Share your information with the class.
  • Choose your favorite passage in the book.  Then draw a “snapshot” of that passage.  Share your passage and drawing with the class and explain why the passage was meaningful to you.
  • Design a T-shirt for TJ, Mike Barbour, Chris Coughlin, Rich Marshall, Oliver Van Zandt, Simon DeLong, Jackie Craig, Andy Mott or Tay Roy Kibble.  Be prepared to discuss how the T-shirt reveals what the character is all about, and what ultimately the book is about.
  • Design a book cover for Whale Talk.
  • Act out one of the scenes in the book and videotape it for the class.


Discussion Questions:


  • Look carefully at your school.  Observe closely the students, teachers, administrators, and staff.  Who has power in your school?  Who does not have power?  How is the power manifested?  What conclusions can you draw from your observations?  (Take five days to record your observations.)  Click on www.mixitup.org to review another similar activity.  Click on www.tolerance.org for the home page on Teaching Tolerance.
  • List the “groups” in your school.  How do you identify the groups?  Is there a “hierarchy” of power or popularity in the grouping of individuals? 
  • Define prejudice.  Find examples of prejudice in Whale Talk.  Is prejudice a problem at your school?  What can you do to reduce prejudice at your school?
  • Names are important in this book.  List the different names and decide how the names help to define the characters.
  • The members of the swim team are “different.”  What do they learn about one another from their experiences on the team?  How do they learn it?  What can we learn about being “different” from this book?
  • Some of you may be offended by the language that some of the characters use in the book.  Can you defend the author’s use of obscenities?  Would the book have been better if the author had not used obscenities? 
  • What role does athletics play in this novel?  What role does athletics play in your own school?  How do you feel about the importance of organized sports at school?  If you could change athletics at your school, what plan would you propose?
  • Look up the word “abuse” in the dictionary.  List the examples of abuse in Whale Talk.  Be prepared to discuss how the different characters respond to abusive relationships.  Do an internet search on domestic abuse.
  • TJ breaks rules.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  When (if ever) is it okay to break rules?  How would your school be if everyone acted as TJ behaves?
  • List the relationships in this book:  Father/Son; Mother/Son; Stranger/Friend; Husband/Wife; Friend/Friend; Friend/Foe – Be prepared to discuss who was in the relationship, provide a description of the relationship, detail how the relationship changed, and what we can learn from each of the relationships.  Is there a common “element” that appears in each relationship that may help us learn how to maintain relationships with others?


Class Activities:


  • Read aloud for 15 minutes before allowing the students silent time for reading.
  • Identify examples of foreshadowing, complex characters, symbols, climax, denouement, and important images (scenes).
  • Define tragedy and comedy.  Give examples of both in Whale Talk.  Discuss how tragedy and comedy influence the characters and themes. 
  • Short quizzes.
  • Read a passage from Whale Talk and then allow for free writing time.
  • Read a review of Whale Talk.  What did you learn about the book from the review?  Click on http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0688180191.asp for a review of Whale Talk.
  • Compare and contrast the types of coaches in Whale Talk.  Read Chris Crowe’s essay on coaches in YA literature at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/fall94/Crowe.html. 


Journal Suggestions:  (These would be read only by the teacher.)


  • Are you someone who prefers to be alone?  Or are you someone who prefers to be in a group?  Discuss in a short essay when and why you prefer to be alone or with others?
  • Does TJ remind you of anyone you know?  If so, describe that person and tell how that person impresses you.
  • Have you ever experienced prejudice?  Have you ever been bullied?  Have you ever bullied someone else?  If so, share the experience in your journal.
  • None of the families is perfect in Whale Talk.  Describe your own family.  What do you like about your family?  What challenges does your family face?
  • Choose your favorite passage in the book.  Discuss why it is your favorite passage.
  • Write five to ten questions you would like to ask Chris Crutcher about himself or the book.



Essay Questions:


  • Bad things happen to good people in this book.  Why do bad things happen to the characters?  How do the characters respond when bad things happen to them?  What can we learn about making decisions from these characters’ actions?  Discuss any of these related questions in a two to three-page essay.  Share your first draft with a friend, then revise the essay and bring it to the teacher.
  • Defend (or criticize) the emphasis upon organized sports in your school.
  • Write a character analysis of TJ.  How is he presented at the beginning of the book?  Does he develop in any way?  What does he learn?  How does he learn it?  What significance does his character development have on the reader?
  • Write a different ending for Whale Talk.
  • Write a poem about Whale Talk.
  • What problems and issues were raised in the novel that are real to you?  Discuss how the author deals with these issues.


Internet Resources:


Click on http://www.chriscrutcher.com/for-educators.html for a teacher’s resource guide to Chris Crutcher.


Click here for a lesson plan for Whale Talk.


Click here for a lesson plan on whales.