What Does Whitman Hear? Word Choice and Walt

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SWBAT determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

Big Idea

Whitman's use of diction is perfection.

Why do people work?

10 minutes

This section is a pre-reading activity to prep students for the Whitman reading of "I Hear America Singing."  I pose the question to the class, "Why do people work?"  We brainstorm a few reasons why.  The most common thing students say is "To buy stuff."  I want students to come to the conclusion that people work for more than just material things---also for self-esteem and a sense of worth.  Sometimes, it takes some prompting; other times it doesn't.

My goal is for students to make the connection to Whitman's poem that his portrayal of the American worker is quite positive and optimisitic and a reflection of America on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution

Once we brainstorm, I play the attached video which brings to life students' ideas.

Read "I Hear America Singing"

15 minutes

In this part of the lesson we read Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing."  We pay special attention to Whitman's diction.  I ask students, "Why does Whitman use the word singing?"  "Does everyone sing when they work?" I also ask what other words does Whitman use to convey a sense of accomplishment and pride in the workers.  Students responses are usually the words "carol' which makes us think of Christmas or a joyous time; "blithe and strong" which refers to happiness and pride; "belongs to him" which again indicates pride in work.

We also answer the attached questions to make sure everyone is aware of the significance of the poem.

The Other Song: "I, Too," by Langston Hughes

15 minutes

In this section, I open with, "Does everyone in America sing the same song as Whitman in describing work?"  "Do all people sing while they work?"  I ask students to think about individual groups or ethnicities and the jobs they had.  Students will bring up immigrants working long hours under terrible working conditions during the Industrial Revolution.  Some students also link this question to slaves who had no choice in their work.

We then read "I,Too," Langston Hughes' response to Walt Whitman.  Although the subject matter is not very pleasant, Hughes turns this poem into an uplifting work hopeful toward the African American condition and place in our country.

After we read the poem, I ask students to think about what Hughes is stating in the poem.  This response is in the form of a general discussion. Essentially, I want students to see that not everyone "sings" when they work.  Whitman was attempting to paint a very romantic view of life in the 1800s.  I want students to see the differences between a romantic view of the world versus the reality.  The facts are that not everyone was singing while they worked in the nineteenth century.  Students should gain a sense of reading between the lines and considering what an author says and comparing it to the reality.


Whitman Triarch

20 minutes

In this section, I want students to see the differences and style in the two Whitman poems read in class.  They will find text evidence to support their answers, including the tone and words that depict the tone in both works.  Finally, students will compare Whitman's tone to Hughes' tone. Again, they will account for the fact that although Hughes' overall statement may be negative, he uses positive diction to present a more hopeful message.


Students research two separate contemporary song lyrics that convey the same messages as expressed in Whitman and Hughes' poems.  They will print out the lyrics and underline at least three lines/phrases in each lyric and explain how it mirrors the message stated in both poems.