Frolicking in Nature with Emerson & Dillard

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SWBAT use textual evidence to provide clarity to student-created questions about Emerson's "Nature" and connect an excerpt from "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" to Transcendental ideology.

Big Idea

Investigating occult relationships with vegetables and arguing over the value of have to love the Transcendentalists!

Lesson Overview

Last class period we started connecting with some of the foundational concepts of Transcendentalism through a series of videos from Daniel Simons, a researcher who studies perception.  Students were also to read an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature," then generate questions through a board at to guide our discussion today.  This class period will provide more examples of Transcendental ideology, and we will then transition to a connected mini-unit of argumentative works of Transcendentalists that will include a small research project and result in student-created multimedia presentations.  


30 minutes

To begin our discussion of "Nature" (Chapter 1), I will ask students a few questions about their overall reading experience.  

  1. How easy or difficult did you find the text to read?
  2. What strategies did you use to make more sense of the text?
  3. Did you have problems collecting questions to post on

After collecting this feedback, I will use the questions students generated on the same website to guide our discussion.  The questions that were generated by my classes are attached in the resources.  My role during the discussion will simply be as a facilitator as needed.  I will ask the questions, and students will respond with textual evidence to answer them for their peers.  I will also try to arrange the questions as they would arise naturally in the discussion, adjusting the question order to fit each group's needs.  There are a few things that I want to ensure happen during the discussion, so in addition to the student-generated questions, I will ask them to expound upon or clarify a few more questions of my own, including:

  • How does Emerson's view of the stars remind you of Walt Whitman's view of the stars in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer"?
  • Do you buy Emerson's idea that nature brings you to a place of youth, either in attitude or by reducing responsibilities?  Have you experienced this?
  • Am I the only one who sees an old man walking into the woods, unzipping his "old man suit" like the aliens in Men in Black, and emerging a young man in the woods?  I know it's weird.  But what words might have made me get that particular image here?
  • How is the "Universal Being" idea connected to the Transcendentalist belief in an Oversoul?
  • The word "occult" has a variety of meanings.  What are they?  Which does Emerson's use of it suggest?
  • Nature being "tricked in holiday attire" might sound like an old-school speech pattern, but how do we still use the word "tricked" in the same way in a modern-day context?
  • Can nature be "tricked" in every season, or just the holiday season?  How is nature tricked in winter?  Fall?  Spring?  Summer?
  • Why has the word "melancholy" appeared in SO many texts that we've read so far this year?  Is it being overused, or is it just the most accurate word for what these authors are describing?
  • How is Emerson's view on nature consistent with the Transcendentalist views on nature?
  • Overall, do you think Emerson comes off as crazy or insightful here?  What did you use to make that judgement?  Structure?  Word choice?  Use of logic or personal examples?

After we conclude our discussion, we will move on to another work that shares Transcendental ideology, though it was written rather recently by a modern-day author.

Building Knowledge

35 minutes

The next piece we will read to compare to Emerson's "Nature" is Annie Dillard's excerpt entitled "Seeing" from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and contained in our textbook.  It was written in 1974, but the ideas contained in the text are very Transcendental and deeply embedded in nature and finding oneself in nature.  Before reading, students will be asked to collect the current knowledge they have about what the word "pilgrim" might mean.  The discussion will first swing toward the Pilgrims that settled the colonies, but I will encourage them to use their other current knowledge and online resources to discover more meanings for the word.  We will then predict which meaning Dillard probably intended for our story, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, considering that we will be relating it to Transcendentalism and Emerson's "Nature."  

Next, I will ask them to tell me what they already know about seeing and the process of sight.  They should also comment on the difference between seeing and vision, using examples to illustrate their point.  Then, we will watch the following brief video clip to gather more information about this topic, which is an important component in the Dillard essay.

Our final step in preparing for our reading will be to consider our feelings on pennies (which sounds strange, but is completely relevant!).  Students will explain if they are in the "pro-penny" or "anti-penny" camp with reasons why they feel that way.  Ideally, students will be split about 50/50 so that at least half of the class will feel guilty when they realize Dillard thinks pennies (especially the symbolic pennies in nature) are the most important thing in life.  Students tend to participate really well in discussions like these, and consequently, they become more invested in the story to find out what their insights on pennies mean for them.

 After our last pre-reading activity, we will begin reading the "Seeing" excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  I use the "popcorn" reading technique to read things aloud in my classroom, and students read at least a sentence and no more than a page before calling on another student to read.  Throughout the reading, I will ask students the following questions to help clarify the reading, explore symbols and analogies, and gather feedback from students.  

  • [Poll the students]  How many of you would be angry if you followed an arrow that said "money this way," only to find a penny?  Why?
  • And for those of you that didn't raise your hand, why would you be excited?
  • For the record, I think your parents would also like me to point out that regardless of what your feelings are, you should NEVER follow arrows pointing to a "surprise ahead" or "money this way"!  You're crazy!  The same thing goes for vans with "free puppies" signs or creepy old men with free candy.  Geez, you're in high school, you should know better!!!
  • What does it say about our narrator that she never wants to see her "surprise" revealed?
  • Before we read the second paragraph, I want to give you a reading purpose for this paragraph.  While we read, I want you to consider two things:
    • What does she consider to be "nature's pennies"?
    • What logic does she use to support her claim that you can be rich through poverty?
  • How many of you now feel really guilty if you said you wouldn't have "stooped" to pick up a penny?!
  • Why could Thoreau write a whole book on sprouts, but we probably couldn't?
  • What is ironic about the advice for finding caterpillars?
  • Why couldn't she see the frog?  What examples of this have you had in your own life that could also be used to support her argument?
  • What does Donald Carr mean when he says it's "philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way" that only the simplest animals can see "the universe as it is"?
  • Using evidence from the video we watched earlier, is Carr right about the simplest animals?  Why?
  • Though Dillard doesn't understand or entirely trust nature, does she view it as a scary place?  What words does she use that support your opinion?


10 minutes

After we have read and discussed the excerpt, students will discuss how the Annie Dillard story matches up with Transcendental themes and Emerson's "Nature."  This activity will serve as a review of the genre and essays, and students will be required to provide evidence to support their claims.  I do not anticipate students to struggle with this process, as we have discussed it at length, but if they do I will change this activity to a written one which will be completed individually and then shared with a partner before sharing it with the class.


5 minutes

In our final few minutes of class, I will preview an upcoming project for students.  Next class period we will be reading "Self-Reliance" and an excerpt from "On Civil Disobedience," which are both favorites of mine.  I want students to approach these two difficult texts with excitement, so my plan is to build anticipation and add relevancy for students.  I have found that the best approach to do this in my classroom is to work the angle that Emerson, Thoreau, and Transcendentalism were all pretty disliked by the "old people" of the time, but all three were pretty widely loved by young people.  I will make the analogy that this school of thinking was akin to all the "dangerous" things that "the kids these days" are into, like technology and "the rap music."  Students will generally perk up when they hear that we'll be reading something distrusted by adults for the complex ideas presented.  I will build interest in the topic by briefly outlining some of Thoreau's biography, which includes being a "follower" of Emerson, living in the woods with a handful of beans for a couple years, and spending time in prison for refusing to pay his taxes in protest, among other things.  

After I have students sufficiently hooked, I will also inform students that they will be creating their own argumentative presentation which will take a stand on some current issue in the news.  In order to choose a topic, students must find a newspaper article that has been published in the past 30 days discussing the topic in some way.  The article does not have to be argumentative itself, but it should be grounded in a topic that they could argue.  For homework, they will be collecting at least two articles from credible online newspapers and linking them in a Google Doc that must be shared with me.  We will talk more about this project in the future, but I want to give them plenty of time to find a topic that appeals to them, since it will be our first project like this.  We will complete a longer argumentative research project next quarter, so this project will be tremendously valuable to preteach some of those concepts, gather formative assessment on their knowledge of argument, and really emphasize the structure of argument (which is an area students have really struggled with in the past).  

The "mini-research" project will have several components, including an outline, Powerpoint (Google Slides) Presentation, and 3-5 Brainshark recording.  Attached in the resource section in this file, I will include a sample template for the outline and presentation.  I will also include a student's topic brainstorming document, completed outline, and presentation.

Next Steps

At this point, I will not give students restrictions on any topics.  I want to encourage them to find something that is interesting to them, not just "easiest" to argue, and limiting the project early tends to result in students that are more conscious of the rubric than their own interests.  Next class period, we will analyze our model argumentative texts and look more into the details of our upcoming "mini-research" project.