Gettin' Political with the Transcendentalists

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SWBAT identify and evaluate the effectiveness of argumentative elements and word choice in Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's "Civil-Disobedience."

Big Idea

"Today, we'll be learning more about argumentation." It's amazing how such a small sentence strikes such great terror into parents.

Lesson Overview

This lesson is the last lesson investigating the texts of the Romantics and Transcendentalists, but it is also an important precursor for a four-lesson mini-unit about argumentation.  Historically, students have struggled with basic elements of research (like finding credible sources, using evidence to support a claim, organizing an argument, and avoiding plagiarism by using sources appropriately and applying genuine thought), so this mini-unit was designed to capitalize on Emerson and Thoreau's argumentative strategy and begin applying these skills to our own writing.  This strategy is also consistent with the Common Core Standards, which suggest more frequent and smaller research projects throughout the curriculum instead of a singular, large research task.


15 minutes

As per the homework from last class period, students were to bring to this class period at least two recent articles (on different subjects) from a credible news outlet (like our local newspaper, CNN, NBC News, etc.) that they found interesting enough to potentially complete an argumentative research project about and share them with me via Google Drive.  To begin our class period today, I will ask students the following questions:

  • Which sources did you find articles from?  Any great news sites you could point other students in who maybe struggled to find an article they connected with?
  • What kinds of articles did you find?  Let's do a brief run around the room to see what we might have for possible topics.  (Snake around the room to get a "progress report" from students and validating great ideas!)


Once we finish chatting about sources and topics, I will transition students to Emerson's "Self-Reliance" by asking them to collaborate on a definition for self-reliance.  We will pull the denotative definition from and add an entry of our own to the whiteboard that explains more our connotations of the word.  As students add to the definition, I will ask questions that force them to clarify their additions.  Some of the common additions are listed below with sample questions I would ask students to clarify their responses.

Student: Being self-reliant means you can do everything on your own.

Me: Okay, so can you still be self-reliant if you accept help from others?  How much help can you accept before you're no longer self-reliant?  Are YOU self-reliant?  Is it possible to be self-reliant if you still use all the modern conveniences like grocery stores, cars, etc.?  


Student: Being self-reliant means that you can do everything on your own as an adult.

Me: So when does "adulthood" start?  Is it when you turn 18?  After college?  When you're 30 or 40?  Where is that cutoff?  Who decides when that cutoff is?


Basically, my purpose with this questioning section is to annoy the students into be specific and offering examples and anecdotes to better explain their definition of the word.  I tend to fall into the "Devil's advocate" role often in my classroom to propel students to become actively involved in discussions and thinking, and that's definitely a role I will be playing here.  This activity usually has a high participation rate, which is positive for a number of reasons.  First, it builds an investment of interest in "self-reliance" as a concept, so when we read Emerson, they're actually curious to see what he has to say about it.  Second, it is completely enlightening as a teacher to learn more about the cultural values of your students and to have them share those values with other students.  Honestly, it's a little bit terrifying at times to hear students say things like that their parents should always give them whatever they want because that's their "job" or that you can be considered self-reliant even without actually being able to rely on yourself, but if you can get past that, you learn a ton about students!

Building Knowledge

15 minutes

After getting a preliminary definition for "self-reliance," we will add the next element of today's lesson, which is our introduction to terms and concepts related to the elements of argument.  Students will make a copy of the document (located in the resources section) called "Elements of Argument Terms & Resources."  Our introductory project on argumentation will stretch over several days, so while students will save an entire copy of these notes, I will only introduce and discuss the first six terms on the handout today.  I think breaking these terms up over the course of several periods and focusing on finding or applying just a few terms a day to a text helps students get a better handle on the terms, both in theory and in reality.  The Common Core Standards do not allow students to simply match definitions anymore or have a less-than-complete knowledge of a skill.  Students will need to know a term and be able to apply it for assessments, so I try to provide as many genuine examples of those tasks as I can in my lessons.  The first six terms on the handouts are absolutely critical to student understanding, which is why they are today's focus.  I have been using these terms all year with my students, but this is the first explicit instruction we have had on the matter.  Making these skills explicit is also a crucial step, since students need to be aware of not only what they are doing, but how or why they are doing it too.  

To discuss these terms, I will follow the discussion outlined in the "Argumentative Focus Day 1" resource.  A big piece of this discussion will include concrete examples for every term to help students associate these terms in a more applicable context.


55 minutes

"Self-Reliance" Investigation (25 minutes)

The discussion should provide enough context for students to take a shot at identifying the claim, support, and evidence present in our selection from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance."  I choose to read paragraphs 80-84 and paragraph 90 with students to get enough of an overview of his argument to discuss without getting too involved in the work.  I like to link the entire text for students to encourage reading if they happen to get especially interested in the text, but I feel that today it's more important to attempt to analyze claims, support, and evidence in two different works to practice those skills, rather than focusing solely on Emerson's ideology.  

Students will read this excerpt aloud in a popcorn reading style, and we will stop after approximately every other paragraph to collect student questions, connections, vocabulary struggles, and paraphrases of the text.  I will tell students that we will be treating this discussion like a "verbal" reading log, so where this information would normally be written down, today it will be shared and discussed immediately as a class.  Students have been rapidly building these critical reading skills, and I see them employing this same method for reading even when it's not assigned to them!  Ideas that my class discussed or had questions on are discussed in the resources.

Finally, students will offer "main ideas" for the text after we finish reading.  I will type the list for students so that there is one copy on the projector, and as students offer their main ideas, they will provide a location so all students can refer to that spot in the text as we discuss it.  After a complete list is collected, students will consider the main ideas on the list and choose which main idea would be most consistent with the overall claim of the argument.  There might be some dissent here, but I will require students to provide support and evidence to support their viewpoint.  This activity works out really well, since not only are students practicing identifying elements of argument, but they are also using the same argumentative skills to advocate for their positions!  Talk about killing two birds with one stone!  I will be sure to continually model appropriate vocabulary when questioning students to help them best connect these terms with their applications.  Once a consensus has been reached about the overall claim of Emerson's work, it will be highlighted red.  

To transition to the next text, I will ask students the following question and invite them to briefly discuss the topic:

  • There was never a really huge group of Transcendentalists, but of them Emerson, the "Father of Transcendentalism," and David Henry Thoreau, his apprentice of sorts, were the major contributors to this time.  They were not widely enjoyed by the older generations of Americans during the time in which they wrote, but they had a fairly large group of young people following their work.  What about Emerson's work would make it alluring to young people and put off old people?  Do you think there would be a similar reaction if they were writing today?  (Students will pretty hastily point out that Emerson's questioning of the way things have always been would upset traditionalists.  Students will be keen to point out the ways his message could be construed as "dangerous" for the youth of America, no matter the time period, but they should also pretty easily argue that the message isn't really dangerous since it's just advocating a consciousness and self-trust.  Sometimes side conversations crop up in this section that are worth investigating further about censorship and the power of text on culture, and if this happens, I would let it go!  It's an amazing thing to see students engaged over the power of text, so that's something that I would want to encourage, even if it meant assigning homework instead of classwork as a result.)


"Civil Disobedience" Investigation (30 minutes)

This same procedure will be followed with an excerpt from "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau, with one exception.  For this essay, we will only read the first two pages, but we will use a video to help students get into the text a bit, then pause it to continue our reading and discussion (as we did above) and then let it conclude.  I will mention to students before reading that most high school textbooks only contain the first two pages of text for this essay, but there is a vast and magical world beyond those pages!  I have always found it suspicious that the initial two-page selection really has little to do with civil disobedience, so I want to expose my students to more of the "meat" of the essay in the hopes that they will get a clearer picture of Thoreau and his true intentions with this essay.  In past years, some students have been inspired enough to keep reading the text, which is kind of a personal victory!

Students will pull up the "Civil Disobedience" text and follow along as I play the first two minutes (which includes an introduction to Thoreau and the essay by Danny Glover) of the History Channel's "The People Speak" documentary, which reads nearly the entire first paragraph of the text.  I like starting this way, because the audience in the background and the actor's inflection and facial expressions help students get a better sense of the tone and content of the work. Find "The People Speak" here.

After the first two minutes, we will pause the video and continue in the same discussion and identifying main ideas pattern that we used above for Emerson's work.  Just as before, the class will reach a consensus of the overall claim of the work as supported by evidence.  Then, we will finish watching the video clip, which picks up reading later in the essay, and discuss how the remainder of the clip may have altered the overall meaning, tone, and purpose of the essay. 


5 minutes

For homework, students will be required to narrow their possible topics to just TWO topics.  Both of these topics needs to have a linked newspaper article from the past 30 days that they will use as a "launching" point for next class period.  In addition to these two topics, students also need to write down a possible claim and counterclaim for each topic that they may use for their argumentative presentations. 

Next Steps

Students will spend the next class period further investigating the Elements of Argument Terms & Resources.  They will also have time to get started on outlining their argumentative presentation after learning more about the requirements for the project.