A Process To Help Students Access "Self-Reliance," Day 2 of 2

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SWBAT identify central ideas in “Self-Reliance” by engaging in a process of looking closely at important elements in the text.

Big Idea

Students take one small step towards independence by relying more on each other than on me for help making sense of this challenging text.


At this point, we have spent a good amount of time taking apart and making meaning of all the important elements in the first paragraph of the essay. It has been a slow process because students have been having a very difficult time understanding the text. Today, we will devote a little more time to paragraph one and continue working in collaboration. Specifically, we will be identifying the central ideas in this first paragraph. This is an important skill in CCSS RI.11-12.2 that calls for students to be able to determine two or more central ideas in a text. Students are working on this skill with a rigorous text. It is taking quite a bit of time to work on this, but it is time well spent as it is an important Common Core skill. The work we do today is the same as the work we did in the previous lesson but with the next part of the essay “Self-Reliance.” More importantly, the other difference is that I am attempting to help students begin to do this on their own today.

Brainstorming In Small Groups

15 minutes

I remind students that they were told yesterday that we would begin class by identifying the central ideas in the first paragraph of “Self Reliance,” which is the culmination of the process we are following. I want students to tackle it with assistance from each other before they talk to me. I give them a few minutes to work with the people at their table to try and identify the central ideas in the first paragraph.  I listen in on their conversations and realize they are now on the right track.

I then ask for their attention back and ask them to share their ideas. Most caught on to the first idea, which is a statement of Emerson’s belief in the importance of being yourself. The second idea, which has to do with the importance of having to put in work in order to make the best of what one has been given, was harder to access because the sentence communicating that was lengthy and filled with challenging vocabulary. I guide students to this idea by asking them to focus on the work we already did: we defined difficult vocabulary, we explained the meaning of the figurative language and the aphorisms. The idea is that if students look over their notes from yesterday, they should be able to focus in on the word “toil” and our explanation of what the “kernel of nourishing corn” means as shown in this student’s notes on his copy of “Self-Reliance” and that should help them identify the second central idea. This works and students are able to verbalize it. Students write these two on the back of their copy of the essay like these two students who phrased the two ideas in their own way.

Reading Next Part of Essay

25 minutes

We move on to the second paragraph of this essay and I ask students to follow the steps we followed for the first one. I tell them that for this paragraph, they are going to begin gaining some independence over the process. What I mean is that they are beginning to get assistance from each other before they get assistance from me. I do not feel they are ready to work independently on this yet. I point to the steps that are written on the board and ask students to do step 1 and 2 on their own. The fours steps are:

  1. Circle challenging words that MUST be defined
  2. Highlight important words/phrases/sentences
  3. Identify and explain figurative language
  4. Identify and explain aphorisms

To begin the process of getting students to tackle this text with more independence I ask them to help each other first before I help them. I ask them to work with each other to try and define words on their own. They soon begin to ask me for definitions so I ask for their attention back and have them ask me to define words for them. They all have questions about the word “contemporaries” and I spend a couple of minutes explaining this because it is an important word in the paragraph. I define it as people who live during the same time period. I explain that we typically use this to describe famous people who were working on similar things during the same time period, such as musicians, writers or philosophers. I don’t want them to think they can refer to each other as contemporaries. They get it and find that idea funny. They were able to highlight important information on their own so this marks the end of step 1 and 2 for this paragraph.

For steps 2 and 3, I have students collaborate to identify any aphorisms and figurative language in paragraph 2. I then ask them to share what they identified to make sure they got it. They are able to do this with ease. This paragraph is short and they are doing a good job of following the process I gave them. Most are able to identify the most important example of figurative language in this paragraph: every heart vibrates to that iron string. There is disagreement in identifying aphorisms. Some feel that “Trust thyself” is an aphorism and others don’t. I refer the class to the definition I gave them and leave it up to them to make that decision. I do admit to them that I would be more selective and would not identify this as an aphorism because, even though it is making an important statement, it does not sound like a very profound piece of truth. This concludes the first part of step 3 and 4.

I then let students collaborate to explain the meaning of the example of figurative language identified. They are having a difficult time explaining the meaning so I ask students to share aloud what they have come up with so far so that I can help them make sense of this. The root of the difficulty is with the grammatical structure of the sentence. Students need a refresher on the function of a colon. I point out that what follows the colon proves, explains, defines, describes, or lists elements of what preceded it. This is straight out of Wikipedia and is a very concise, helpful description. This indicates to students that the phrase “every heart vibrates to that iron string” is directly related to the first two words “Trust thyself.” I also have to bring attention to the word “that” and ask them to think of what that word refers to. There are times when I have to remind my students of something basic about language, which is that language communicates, and that specific words have specific meanings and a variety of connotations. In this instance, I tell students they should be asking what “that” points to. Some begin to realize that “that iron string” may be the trust Emerson believes we should have in ourselves. We then move on to talk about the heart vibrating. By this time students begin to get more comfortable interpreting and we are able to imagine a hear beating. Put together, a heart beating to that iron string may refer to the idea that trusting yourself is a source of life. Students write this on their paper in their own words like these two student’s annotations on this second paragraph.

Identifying Central Ideas

15 minutes

After these fours steps, students are ready to identify the central idea(s) in this paragraph. I also let them collaborate for a few minutes and then we discuss together. It is easy for students to identify the idea of trusting yourself as a central idea. I help them focus on the idea of accepting what God has given you, including your contemporaries. Many have highlighted this part so it is not a big leap for them. We are able to conclude that this paragraph also establishes the idea that God has given us certain things and we should accept them. Students mostly combine these two into one sentence. These are three versions of this sentence:

            Trust yourself and accept the fortunes God gives you and your contemporaries.

            Trust yourself and accept the gifts God gave you.

            Trust yourself and accept the place God has found for you.


2 minutes

I ask students if this feels easier than the day before. They all say it does, but that it is still challenging. This is a video of a student who is reflecting on his experience with “Sef-Reliance” and the process I gave them.

I reiterate that this is a difficult text and tell them that I believe they were able to make more sense of it today than the day before.