American Romanticism: Ralph Waldo Emerson

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SWBAT analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

Big Idea

Emerson lauds the benefits of being an individual.


This lesson is the first lesson dealing with the Transcendentalists. This can be a challenging unit for students because most of the concepts are abstract and it may be difficult for students to catch on.  I try to relate Transcenentailism to popular culture or history.  I use the analogy that the way we act in society and in nature is comparable to the way we act in school and during the summer.  I first introduce the American Romantics and stipulate that Transcendentalism was an offshoot of the American Romantic movement.  I do have to explain the difference between a Romantic and a realist.  Students tend to think of romance and Valetine's Day when they see the word romantic.  I explain that the Romantics see the world as it should be while the realist see the world as it is.

The two reading selections are from the text book Prentice Hall Literature, The American Experience, 2002.  Pages 388-392.

Introduction: American Romanticism

15 minutes

I use this PowerPoint to introduce the central ideas of Transcendentalism and explain the American Romantic movement in the United States in the nineteenth century.  Students will take notes and especially pay attention to the tenets of Transcendentalism.

Quick Write: The Individual

15 minutes

Before we read, I want students to understand the qualities that make one an individual.  As they respond to the following prompt, I want them to extract the tone from the words they chose to answer the prompt.  I will write the following prompts on the board and students will respond to them before I play the video:

1. Define qualities that make someone an individual.  Look at the words you used; are they positive or negative? 

2. Define conformity?  Are these words positive or negative?

3. Should we conform to social expectations?  Identify people within our society either living or dead who defy social norms?  Why do these people stand outisde the mainsream?

Following the quick write, to demonstate the concept of conformity in our culture, I play a video clip form an old TV ad from the 1960s for Coca-Cola.  I ask students to infer what social expectations is the speaker in the commercial trying to conform to and how is the premise of this commercial ridiculous?  What would happen if this ad played today?  I want students to see an example of conformity in our society, in this case, women 's roles in the 1950s and 1960s before the Sexual Revolution.  Students will see how the speaker thinks drinking cola will make her thin.  The premise is women must be aethetically pleasing in order to be happy in 1960s America.  What do women or men for that matter do in today's society to conform?  Hopefully, students will identify gender roles and see how both men and woman conform to social expectations.  Students will also compare their responses to the prompts to their view of this ad.



Read from Self-Reliance

20 minutes

In this section, we read an excerpt from Emerson's Self-Reliance essay.  Because of its complexity, it is imperative to have students complete the guided reading check as we go.  I offer the following analogy to students to understand the difference between Self-Reliance and Nature

Students attending school during the year are comparable to man in society as expressed in Self-Reliance.  Students enjoying their summer vacation are comparable to man in nature.  I often begin each section by generating a discussion to ask students how they behave during school and during the summer.  Most students will answer that their lives are run by bells during school, which is the equivalent to man being dictated by social expectations.  Students will note their carefree ways during the summer, which is the equivalent to nature nurturing the soul and allowing man to be his true self.

Read from Nature

20 minutes

Again, in this section, we compare students' lives during the summer to the way man acts in nature.  Students will note the carefree nature of man as compared to the way he acts in society.

We will complete the attached graphic organizer where students will compare the two essays by pulling text from each work to describe the unique way man acts in each environment.


Students will write a reflection noting how Self-Reliance and Nature mirror the differing ways their lives are altered in school and during the summer.  Students will include a description of how man acts in society verses how he acts in nature.