Close Reading: Emerson on Education

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SWBAT to determine the meaning of complex nineteenth century texts by asking questions and closely reading small passages of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Big Idea

Determining meaning of small chunks of text and connecting ideas can lead to deeper understanding of complex texts.


Interpreting Text Through Critical Questions

50 minutes

Students will come in having read an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Education (pg. 189 of our textbook The Language of Composition).   Because this text has a much higher text complexity, part of the lesson today is how to make meaning in a text like this.  As part of their homework I asked them to write a series of questions based on passages from the text rather than answering specific questions regarding rhetorical strategies and appeals.   It is hard to identify rhetorical strategies of a text that you’re not completely confident of general meaning, so at this level of complexity we will build up to that as the year goes on.  For this first crack at nineteenth century non-fiction, I felt there was some freedom in asking questions—there wouldn’t be an inherent pressure to get something ‘right,’ though they are still focused on citing specific evidence from a text to make meaning.  Today we will build meaning regarding the text from their initial questions.

I will ask student to first work in pairs to ask each other some of their questions, focusing specifically on passages of interest, and working out some initial answers.  They have been working in this manner all semester, and the discourse I hear as I listen to their discussions has definitely deepened; they are citing evidence more effectively, and connecting ideas well.  In the case of a text like this, talking to someone first also has the effect of building some confidence if they struggled; they will hear that peers had similar questions and thoughts, and then feel better about participating in a broader discussion.  Finally, it gives students a chance to review the text and remember what they read.

After ten or fifteen minutes of pair discussion,  we will hear responses.   To start, the open discussion will be guided by the student responses—I want to validate their responses to build confidence.  Eventually I will steer the discussion to a couple of learning moments I want to address if the conversation doesn’t get there, but I will save those for toward the end of the discussion.  The particular things I want to focus on is to look at what information the introduction provides, define the terms “nature,””genius,” and “drill,” as Emerson uses them and refines their meaning throughout the text, and and also spend some time teaching the grammatical construction of the imperative and his use of it for rhetorical effect.

In these older works, the main idea is usually rather clearly stated in the first paragraph, so I want to make sure students recognize that, and also consider identifying terms mentioned there (such as “nature”) because they are keys to understanding the rest of the piece.  Defining “genius vs. drill” also gets to the heart of his notion about education, and is a nice bumper-sticker moment for them to hang meaning on (I generally like having students pick out bumper-sticker type quotes to establish meaning in texts like these; like Thoreau, Emerson essentially says the same point in a number of different ways in each paragraph, with different allusions and metaphors to refine meaning.  So picking out the quotes that make some sense, then connecting those, is a nice way for them to make meaning of an entire text).   With regard to imperative constructions, I like to teach these grammar constructions when they come up in a piece, because the function is clear and there is better recognition because of context; since it is a device Emerson uses a lot, it is a great time to teach the function of it.

Students may bring up some of these questions/ideas on their own; if they do, I’ll address them in the moment.  If they don’t, I will bring them up myself.  The genius vs. drill as a question of teaching how to use knowledge to build wisdom vs. simply learning knowledge, one of Emerson’s main ideas, is also important for the free-writing they will do at the end of class.

Free-Writing: What Would Emerson Think Today?

20 minutes

For the last fifteen minutes students will write a free-write to the prompt “ what would Emerson think about the state of education today?”  I will also list some specific issues such as economics, grades, standardized tests, etc.  They must start with a QUOTE from the text, then answer the question by applying the quote.  The purpose of this is to start modeling synthesis—taking the ideas of others to make their own argument.  

Next Steps:   As we draw near to writing a synthesis essay, I’ve been having students read some philosophical works to help them think about the definition of a “true education.”  James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide their thoughts on this in an historical perspective.  To bring the idea to modern times, students will read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College (as published in a collection of essays called This is Water).  This will be due for Thursday, since tomorrow we will continue to work with Emerson.