In the previous lesson, I asked students to begin reading “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson and begin to identify the central ideas of this essay, particularly in the first paragraph. The task was extremely difficult for students because the text is so complex. The language is unfamiliar to students and the sentence structure is complex. Today, we will revisit the first paragraph and spend more time breaking it down. To do this, I am giving students a step-by-step approach. This is the list of the four steps I will ask students to follow today. We are working on one at a time.
I start class by stating an obvious, that this essay is pretty challenging. Students offer words of agreement. I tell them that today we are revisiting the paragraph we read yesterday and that I am having them follow a four-step process that will help them understand what they read. The four steps I selected guide students to focus on different aspects of language, from definitions to meanings. When students encounter a difficult text, their instinct is to flee so they do a quick read in order to be done with it. These four steps require them to slow down and grapple with the language and make sense of it.
I tell them we are beginning with the more simple steps and making our way to the more difficult ones. I state that the first step addresses a basic challenge, difficult vocabulary. The first step is to circle challenging words that must be defined. I clarify that not every single unknown word may need a definition. I point out that some times we can figure out the meaning of a word in context. In this text, I only ask them to circle the words that are keeping them from understanding the author’s claims. I give students a moment for this first step. I write this first step on the board in the meantime.
I project a copy of “Self-Reliance” on the board so that I can help students follow the fours steps in the first paragraph. The plan is to work together on the first paragraph so they understand how to follow these steps and then gradually guide them to do it on their own. Another reason why I work on the first paragraph together with students is so that I get a more clear sense of what they will be able to do on their own, which I miscalculated in the previous lesson.
I ask students to tell me which words they circled. Students circled the following words: envy, kernel, nourishing, bestowed, toil, conviction, ignorance. I point out that bestowed is defined for them on the notes included in the essay and instruct them to pay close attention to these because they are there to help them. I spend a few minutes defining each word for them and students make quick notes on their paper. Some students ask why these words are needed. For instance, someone is bothered by the use of the word “kernel” and wonders why Emerson did not just say “corn.” I actually spend a couple of minutes addressing this because I want to challenge a notion that I know is prevalent in the group of students in front of me, which is that sophisticated words are unnecessary. I remind students that there may be several words with very similar meaning but very different connotations and that it is important to select the words that have the proper connotation to communicate exactly what you are trying to communicate. I basically make the point that it is a good thing that we have so many words available for us because we need them to communicate the variety of thoughts that run through our minds. I finish defining these words for students and they note these on their paper. Discussing vocabulary like this in context is actually enjoyable for students. Learning new vocabulary that specifically helps them understand a text they have been wrestling with feels like a worthwhile experience.
I then introduce students to the next three steps:
2. Highlight important words/phrases/sentences
3. Identify and explain figurative language
4. Identify and explain aphorisms
Steps 2 and 3 are very familiar to students and I don’t need to explain them. Step 4 introduces a new term, aphorism, and I need to explain it. I define aphorism as a short phrase that attempts to communicate a truth. Students ask if it is a fact or if it is a quote. This suggests they don’t quite get the meaning of an aphorism. I say it is neither. I explain that a quote is any language you borrow from an author and they do not always communicate a piece of truth. I also explain that a fact refers to something concrete that cannot be argued, which is not an aphorism. An aphorism is a truth according to the author. I add that this clearly suggests that others may disagree with this "truth." The point is that an aphorism presents a truth its author believes based on his/her belief system. To give them immediate practice, I tell students that the first paragraph of “Self-Reliance” has examples of aphorisms and I give students a moment to find them. This happens in silence. I then ask them to tell me how many aphorisms they found by putting up the same number of fingers. Some show me one finger, some two, some none. I ask students to share the aphorism they found. One likely mistake will be with confusing an aphorism, which should be a short statement that attempts to communicate a truth, with a powerful sentence that is important in understanding the author’s argument but is not attempting to communicate a truth. The first student who volunteered to identify the first aphorism started reading the entire first three lines. This was a good opportunity to let them know that we are looking for a short phrase that is packed with meaning and that attempts to communicate a truth. Students are then able to suggest the two aphorisms in this paragraph: envy is ignorance, imitation is suicide. This concludes part one of the fourth step. We then move on to explain the meaning of these aphorisms on the margin. I write the word “Aphorism” on the margin and copy the first aphorism we identified. I ask students to think of what this means. This is challenging for my students. Like I explained about aphorisms, this one is packed with meaning. It is only three words, but they communicate a lot. Students’ first instinct is to rephrase it. For instance, one of my students suggests that this means that jealousy has a lack of knowledge. They give it a couple more tries, but they are unable to make sense of this aphorism. To help them, I tell them that they should think of the features of Transcendentalism I introduced them to the day before because those will help them make sense of this aphorism and of this essay. They think about this but cannot recall the details I presented. I take a quick detour.
I ask students to get their chart where we kept track of the details of Transcendentalism and I project my copy on the board. I have to spend some time reviewing this information. The intention is that once students bring to mind the details I presented in this chart about Transcendentalism, like the belief that it is within the power of the individual to free the soul and live by intuition, they can make sense of Emerson’s claims. This is a worthwhile detour.
I then turn back to “Self-Reliance” and ask students to try and explain the meaning of the aphorism we are discussing. They can now explain what it means. In this video, I guide students to explain this aphorism by connecting it to Transcendentalist beliefs. We end up writing that it means “you should not waste time envying others because that’ll keep you from finding out about yourself.” We follow the same process for explaining the second aphorism.
We then move on to explain the most important example of figurative language in this paragraph, “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on plot of ground which is given to him to till…” I have engaged students in activities where they explain the meaning of figurative language so this part is much easier for them than explaining the meaning of an aphorism. In this student copy of “Self-Reliance” you can see how we explained the figurative language, as well as the two aphorisms in the first paragraph.
I point out that we did not get very far with this essay today, but I assert that it is necessary to spend this time making sense of a text like this. I let students know that we will be following the same process for the entire essay. I communicate that the purpose is to follow a process that will lead to the central ideas in this text. I let them know that tomorrow we will be making use of the work we accomplished today to track the central ideas in the paragraph we worked on today.