My sophomores are currently reading Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. The novel addresses many issues that have value to teens - racism, the idea of "fitting in," bullying, ways to communicate with authority figures... and connections and understanding.
My students have not finished the book yet, but today we discussed some if the sections that first hint at the significance of the title. In a conversation the narrator, T.J., has with his dad, readers learn that whale songs can be communicated for thousands of miles in the ocean. The author hints at whales being able to share all of their experiences with all other whales - so all whales understand the joy, sadness, angst, love, depression, etc. that other whales are singing about. The author contrasts this with a group of outcasts - teenage boys who for various reasons do not fit in at their high school (one is the only minority, another is obese, another a "nerd," another brain damaged, etc.).
In today's conversation, we talked about what kinds of things we share with other people and in what contexts. We talked about social media and what teens share online - this really made me think about Miller's "New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture." Students argued that their status updates, tweets, etc. could travel just as far as the whales' songs. However, students also admitted that stories with real emotional power (like the stories that some of the characters in the book shared with each other), most people would only share with two or three close friends.
In the upcoming chapters of Whale Talk, the author has the narrator exploring the idea of how whales communicate even further. The narrator asserts that because whales' voices travel so far and all of their experiences are heard by all other whales, that "whale talk" really means truth and connections - real experiences. Readers are left wondering what the world would be like if people communicated more like whales. Would there be less judgement if we knew the pregnant teen's background? Would the special education student get bullied less if people knew how much he hurt? Would someone have a kind word for the student sitting alone in the cafeteria if they knew his mom was an alcoholic?
However, social media are not going in the direction of "whale talk." They seem more quantity oriented than content oriented... and I appreciate the point that people do use social media as a way to simply feel connected to something - to assert their presence. I'm wondering what my students will say about their views on social media and the themes of the book as we continue discussing.