Introduction To Transcendentalism

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SWBAT gain knowledge of Transcendentalism and apply new knowledge by reading a seminal text of the period.

Big Idea

Exposing students to the set of ideas of a literary movement helps them make sense of a text from that period.


We are going to start reading a text by one of the main authors of the transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In order for students to capture the significance of this text, they will need an introduction to Transcendentalism. This will be a very brief and broad overview, but the ideas presented will show up in the text and that will help students make sense of the content.


5 minutes

I open by announcing to students that I am giving them a quick introduction to American Literature movements today. I plan for this to be a brief overview so students are just expected to follow along as I lecture. I explain that the focus of an 11th grade English class is American literature and that it is no accident that they are enrolled in an American History class concurrently. I project a chart we will be using to track important aspects of a few literary movements in American literature and tell students that we will only be talking about the first one and the third one today. The first movement is the age of faith with Puritan literature. The third one is the age of expansion with Transcendentalist literature. The reason why I only plan on addressing these two today is because it can take a while to look at all three at once and it is difficult for students to keep track of all three at the same time. The reason why I am not focusing only on Transcendentalism is because the comparison to other literature is helpful for students to understand the qualities of the one we are focusing on, Transcendentalism.

I briefly explain what a literary movement is by stating that there have been periods of time when a given group of writers explored a given set of ideas and adopted a certain set of beliefs. The literature produced reflects these ideas and beliefs and it begins to be considered a movement. 

Exploring Transcendentalism

25 minutes

I begin by discussing the age of faith and Puritans. I ask students what they know about the Puritans and if they have studied them in their history class. Students say they have not studied them and they are not familiar with their history. I have to give them a brief overview where I explain the following:

  • Puritans fled Europe because they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. 
  • They came and settled in the area now known as the United States in order to create a community where they could practice religion the way they wanted.
  • They wanted to practice a pure form of religion, which is why they are called Puritans.
  • The focus of their life is on religion

The Puritan way of life is usually interesting to students because it feels so far from what they know and because it represents an extreme when comparing them to the other movements.

I bring their attention back to the chart and explain that the three categories on this chart are useful in comparing these three movements. I begin to fill in the chart for the age of faith by writing their view of God and nature as shown in the chart and explain each detail I add. Students work on making their own copy of this chart. I have to define the word “wrath” and add the words in parenthesis. To explain their view of nature I have to remind students of the Adam and Eve story so that they can understand that a people who chose to see religion in pure terms would take a story like this one to literally mean that humans are born sinners. I add that this helps explain why the strict adherence to the word on the bible; It was the only way of ensuring a place in heaven. I emphasize that Puritan’s believed their life must be solely guided by the word of God. At this point, students begin to comment on this view of the world by stating that it seems extreme. A couple may also question why we are talking about religion in school. I always have at least one student asking this question during a lecture like this one. I simply respond by saying that I presenting a people’s view of God, not my own, and that I am not teaching them to adopt any religious view.

Before addressing the Puritan’s view of free will, I need to make sure students know what free will is. When I ask, a few students know so they provide a definition. I then ask students to guess how much free will Puritans believed they had. Because Puritan life adhered strictly to religion, students can easily arrive at the conclusion that Puritans free will was extremely limited. They do and I add this to the chart. I then ask students what they would expect to see in the literature Puritans left behind. They can easily say that the literature was probably focused on religion. I show them this interesting example of a Puritan primer that has always proven engaging for students because of its explicit and graphic nature.

I give students a quick preview of the movement we will eventually add in the middle row of the chart, the age of reason. This will work as a quick bridge to Transcendentalism, which we move on to next. I explain the details I add to the third row of the chart. Specifically, I make sure to make the following points:

  • The belief is that we are all part of one great soul, the oversoul and God is one part of this Oversoul
  • The focus on nature. Nature can help us get closer to God. It is also a place that allows us to look within ourselves and discover who we really are.
  • Every individual is capacle fo discovering the higher truth on his or her own, through intuition.

I basically want students to understand that the individual is at the center of Transcendentalist beliefs and that it is fully within our individual power to find meaning in life.

I let students know that we are about to start reading a text from one of the most famous Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that they must keep these ideas in mind as we read.

Introduction To "Self-Reliance"

15 minutes

I distribute the first page of this excerpt of the essay “Self - Reliance.” I ask if they understand what it means to be self-reliant. Most said it is self-explanatory and verbalize that it means to rely on yourself. I ask, "Does that title make sense for a transcendentalist text?" They easily say it does. I am trying to make these connections explicit hoping that they will make them when they read on their own.

I read the first paragraph aloud. This is a challenging text and I expect they will need some guidance to tackle it. I ask them for their initial reactions. They all look a bit overwhelmed and it takes them a bit to start verbalizing their initial response. One student says it feels challenging because she felt that she understood something and the next sentence throws her off. Another student says it sounds deep. Someone else calls it intense. Most are not quite sure what Emerson is trying to communicate. They will need to engage in a close reading of this text in order to make sense of it. For this, I plan to have students select the central ideas, discuss in small groups and then discuss with the whole class. This will give them an overview of Emerson’s claims.

I ask students to reread the paragraph on their own and highlight or underline the significant words or phrases. They easily identify the most powerful phrases including the two aphorisms: envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide. This is a good example of a student's annotations on the first paragraph.

I then ask students to turn to the people at their table and work together to try and figure out the idea or ideas Emerson establishes in this first paragraph. I walk around and listen in on their conversations. Also, several groups call me over for help with a variety of things, including defining words, clarification on specific phrases and feedback on their conclusions. They are having a very difficult time making sense of this text.

The end of the period is close and I want to hear what they came up with in their small group discussions. I ask for their attention and ask for volunteers to share any central idea they identified in this first paragraph. No one wants to volunteer. I suggest they ask clarifying questions instead because questions are good at helping us begin to make meaning of a complex text. No one has a question to ask. I call on a student I overheard during the small group conversation who had gotten to the point where she was suggesting a possible point Emerson was making in the paragraph, which is his belief that we should be ourselves, and ask her to share. I am trying not to end the class on a note of defeat. Also, I let them know I am calling on her because she was on the right track. She tries to explain something other than what I heard her say, which suggests more confusion. I step in and share the idea I had heard. The bell rings. They will need a lot more support tomorrow.