Emily Dickinson: Simplicity of Language--A Life in Isolation

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SWBAT interpret figures of speech through drawing inferences from Emily Dickinson's diction.

Big Idea

Literal meaning and implied meaning can create confusion in readers; Dickinson's poetic descriptions of common things illustrate this to provide understanding for students.

Welcome and Introduction: It's "Answer Your Cat's Question" Day

10 minutes

As students enter the classroom, I greet them at the door and hand each a note card. At the bell, I introduce today as "Answer You Cat's Question Day," and prompt students, "If your cat (or any pet) would ask you a question," what would it be? How would you answer it? Students should write their name, pet's name and species, question, and their answer to it on the note card, as the first a routine short journal entry of the semester (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10).

These note cards will be used to track student participation in the new semester. They're a way for me to ensure participation, and randomize the students on whom I call. 

The journal question serves as a way to encourage students to write, creatively, and think "outside the box" as we move into a new semester. I will ask students to share their responses, informally, to build comfort with presenting their ideas and information to the class (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4).  

As always, Daily Holidays such as this serve to build student ownership and a sense of community in the class.

About Emily Dickinson: Understanding the Poet

25 minutes

I open our study of Emily  Dickinson with a question for brainstorming: "How does an author's works reflect his or her life?" I ask for examples from the  class if they can think of any notable ones  (Salinger, J.K. Rowling, etc.). (Again, in order to encourage student participation and build confidence by presenting their ideas to the class CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4).  

Students begin by reading a Biographical sketch of Emily Dickinson, courtesy Poets.org. After reading about the poet, students are asked, "What seems important to understanding Dickinson's life?" This key idea will be the focus of our viewing of John Green's "Crash Course: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson", particularly the life of Dickinson starting at 3:11.  

For this section, we will only look at the animated biography. After the look at Dickinson's life, I ask the students to share with the class how the details in the video vary from those in the biography reading. I call on students using the notecards to address them, in order to get them used to this manner of  tracking participation. This is a student-directed conversation, providing them the ability to determine what is emphasized in each account (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7).

I prepare a few "talking points" for the comparison: 

  • The focus on color symbolism: white vs. red (for passion or mourning)
  • Focus of Dickinson's writing: death and solitude 
  • Her solitary life (through a slot in a door vs. "a lively correspondence")

I address Dickinson's life because--as implied in both the reading and the video--her work and life are closely related, her poetry autobiographical in inspiration if not in content. As we look critically at writing, students will evaluate how the portrayals of Dickinson's life are similar and why they are different.  

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Reading "I Heard Fly Buzz"

13 minutes

"Crash Course: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson" presents the entirety of Dickinson's poem, "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" (this poem is in the student's textbook, but I provide a copy in order to allow students to annotate the work). As I pass out the copies of the poem, I remind students the definition of annotate: "to add notes to a poem in order to give explanation or to comment." 

We begin with a look at examples of figurative language and their role in a text (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5a). I ask the class as a whole questions #1 and #3 in order to allow the experts a chance to speak up or to activate prior knowledge.  

1. What are they? (words or phrases that have a meaning beyond the literal.) 

2. Students are given a "Figures of Speech notes sheet" for the definitions and examples of each of these. These are blank, to allow students to test themselves/their prior knowledge and to create their own examples. 

3. Such as? (metaphor & simile, hyperbole [exaggeration], personification, synecdoche, idioms. These are posted on the board as students define them and come up with examples.)

As we move into the second semester, students will be looking beyond the meaning of a story, poem, or piece or non-fiction, and exploring the craft of writing in more detail. Students need an understanding of the major figures of speech used in writing, and this lesson serves as refresher for many, but an introduction to for some, these concepts. Dickinson's poetry is many-layered, and on the surface, easy to interpret, we'll look into her language and themes in the homework and more in class tomorrow. 

Two-Minute Warning: Wrap Up, Reminders, and Homework

2 minutes

With two minutes remaining, I go over the homework as given on the back of the "Figures of Speech Notes Sheet." In order to reinforce the understanding of figures of speech (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5a), I  ask students to conduct  a short research assignment to find examples of one additional figure of speech for death, and to identify what device it is, and to find a figure of speech for life, and identify what it is (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7) . Students are also challenged to create their own figures of speech for these concepts as well.