Teach This Poem: “Why Whales Are Back in New York City” by Rajiv Mohabir

Teach This Poem, though developed with a classroom in mind, can be easily adapted for remote-learning, hybrid-learning models, or in-person classes. Please see our suggestions for how to adapt this lesson for remote or blended learning. We have also noted suggestions when applicable and will continue to add to these suggestions online.

Featured Poem

Related Resource

Look at this image of a humpback whale in New York City from the BBC.

Classroom Activities

The following activities and questions are designed to help your students use their noticing skills to move through the poem and develop their thinking about its meaning with confidence, using what they’ve noticed as evidence for their interpretations. Read more about the framework upon which these activities are based.

  1. Warm-up: Listen to the audio of whale songs. What do you notice? What is surprising or interesting to you? What questions do you have?
  2. Before Reading the Poem: Look at this image of a humpback whale in New York City. What stands out to you most in this image? Why? 
  3. Reading the Poem: Now, silently read the poem “Why Whales Are Back in New York City” by Rajiv Mohabir. What do you notice about the poem? Annotate for any words or phrases that stand out to you or any questions you might have.
  4. Listening to the Poem: (enlist two volunteers to read the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read aloud twice, and write down any additional words and phrases that stand out to you. Or, you may opt to listen to the poet read the poem.  
  5. Small-group Discussion: Share what you noticed in the poem with a small group of students. Based on the details you just shared with your small group and the resources from the beginning of class, what do you think about the title, “Why Whales Are Back in New York City?” How does this compare to the images and audio from the beginning of class? 
  6. Whole-class Discussion: How does the poem connect whales to immigration and ICE? How do the last two stanzas impact the poem? What do they mean to you? 
  7. Extension for Grades 7-8: Write a response to this poem from the perspective of one of the whales back in New York City. Where has the whale been? Why did the whale come back? What might the whale have to say about immigration, New York City, etc.?
  8. Extension for Grades 9-12:  Continue reading more poems about immigration. Choose a poem and compare “Why Whales Are Back in New York City?” to your chosen poem in an essay.

More Context for Teachers

“I wrote this poem to speak out as our government bullies immigrants. This poem is also a love song to my community: It’s been a century since Indian indenture was abolished, and we celebrate on the streets of a different empire that would rather see our brown faces deported. How beautiful that the whales, once threatened by a fouled environment, retreated and now come back that the waters are cleaner; we have so much work to do.”—Rajiv Mohabir. Find the “About This Poem” statement here.

Poetry Glossary

This week’s glossary term is tone, a literary device that conveys the author’s attitude toward the subject, speaker, or audience of a poem. Read more.