Emily Dickinson's Simplicity of Language: "Because I could not stop for Death--"

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SWBAT interpret Emily Dickinson's use of figures of speech in context and analyze their impact on meaning and tone in "Because I could not stop for Death--".

Big Idea

How do you describe Death? This question guides our look at the speaker's interaction with and reaction to Death.

Welcome & Introduction: It's National Peanut Butter Day!

10 minutes

To open class, I welcome students to "National Peanut Butter Day!" Today also marks the first "Friday Favorite" vote of the semester; in which I poll the students' preferences on a topic. Seeing as it's "National Peanut Butter Day," the poll is between Creamy, Chunky/Crunchy, and "Nope." I stress to the students that a "Nope" vote can be for any reason: taste, allergy, preference, and I will not pry or judge. Following the poll, I ask students to justify why Creamy is better, or the other way around. 

During the vote and subsequent conversation, I return students' Figures of Speech Notes assignments from Wednesday to them. 

As with the Daily Holidays, Friday Favorite votes serve to build a sense of community and trust within the classroom, encouraging students to share their thoughts and participate in a wide range of discussions, build on others' ideas, express their own ideas clearly (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1). In addition, the practice developing and supply evidence for their claims--even in an informal situation--should translate to students' writing as we develop more critical and evaluative pieces this semester (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1b).  

Figures of Speech in "Because I could not stop for Death--"

20 minutes

After the introduction, we move on to addressing Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death--" (p. 2). Students were asked to read the poem and annotate Dickinson's use of the figures of speech we have been addressing: metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, synecdoche, and idioms. 

In order to keep students' thoughts engaged and practice some quick "thinking on their feet," I have students call out examples of figurative language which they remembered or found; while I annotate the poem with their examples on the board (board notes), I ask students to interpret the use of each example of figurative language and and the role of each in the poem, including its impact on the meaning expressed in the text (RL 9-10.4). As part of this analysis, I ask students to make an inference analyzing "why" Dickinson may have chosen to use each figure of speech, rather than directly stating her meaning, as Puritan Plain Style would have done. There are no "right or wrong" answers to this necessarily, I'm seeking to see the connections and reactions the students have to each poem.

As students address the stanza:

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

I draw the "house", teasing out student "recognition" of the image until writing "RIP Emily" on the "cornice". We discuss the use of the metaphor of the grave as a house, and how it connects with the idea of a "final" resting place. This also serves as a vocabulary lesson, as many students don't know the word "cornice."

As this is a student participation discussion, we also address the theme of the poem itself, and how it connects to Dickinson's overall writing body. We specifically compare the poem to "I heard a Fly buzz--", which the students examined yesterday, with a focus on the key thematic idea of death in both (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2), particularly the last stanza. I integrate John Green's observation from the very end of the "Crash Course," video, that by ending "I heard a Fly buzz--" with a regular rhyme, it provides a sense of finality to death, that death is the end; in contrast, "Because I could not stop for Death--" uses slant rhyme, which leaves more ambiguity. Given the difference of subject between the "moment of death" and "after death", the students discuss the implication of these specific details. 

I share my own interpretation; I look at "Because I could not stop for Death--" as a "sequel" of sorts to "I heard a Fly buzz--", humans know what happens at the moment  of death (e.g. "The windows failed") but what comes after (e.g. the carriage ride to "eternity") is the great unknown, hence a more ambiguous ending, and hence the lack of rhyme. 


Introducing Walt Whitman: Brainstorm and Biography

10 minutes

"So, let's leave Death behind, and focus on a poet who celebrated Life. Does anyone know anything about Walt Whitman?" I ask, as I hand out Whitman's Poets.org biography and two of his poems. We brainstorm a bit on Whitman, if students have heard of him, what poems they may have familiarity, the time in which he wrote, etc. before turning to the biographical reading. In order to determine key ideas in reading, and what details the author chose to use (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2), we read through the biography aloud. I initially call on volunteers, but (randomly, using the note cards created on Wednesday of this week) call on students if we do not have volunteers to read. Once we have read through the biography, I as students to draw out the key ideas, in order to provide an objective summary of the reading. A volunteer copies these key ideas on the board.   

The homework is to read the two poems by Whitman on the back of the biography: "I Hear America Singing" and "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer," annotating each for the figures of speech (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5a) we have been studying, as well as to answer the assigned questions.

With Dickinson, the "Crash Course" video provided most of the "meaning" of Dickinson's poems needed for understanding. The questions ask students to cite evidence identifying what Whitman says in his poems (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1) and what themes he seems to be developing over the course of his poetry (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2). 

In our textbook and in many American literature classes, Dickinson and Whitman are often paired together, and held in contrast as the "start" of modern poetry: one for her traditional rhythm and rhyme structure, meditative tone, and introspective themes, the other for free verse structure, a boisterous tone, and celebratory themes. With a look at both poets, students practice comparing and contrasting literature. Additionally, our study of American literature is primarily chronological, and we begin the second semester in the time following the American Civil War. "Bookending" class with these two poets serves to highlight their similarities and differences in life and writing.

Wrap-Up & Reminders: Exit Slips & Homework

10 minutes

As an exit activity, I ask students to complete one of three prompts reacting to Dickinson's poetry:

1. What mood or emotions do these poems create in you, the reader? 

2. How does "Because I could not stop for death--" use nature imagery to portray the mental and emotional state of the speaker?

3. Contrast the two poems: how are they different, despite having the same subject, death? 

Students are given a quarter-sheet of paper on which to write their responses, and five minutes to complete them. These questions are provided to the students on a handout. 

I chose to use an exit activity in order to gauge students' personal reactions to the poems; we have discussed Dickinson's use of Figures of Speech in detail, and have addressed some of the mechanical aspects of her poems, but we have not taken the time in class to discuss how the students "react" to each poem. By writing in this short time frame, students can complete the task of sharing their reactions (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10) to the poems with me, practicing expressing and supporting their opinion as we move into more "critical" writing.