Introduction To Thoreau's Walden

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SWBAT make meaning of Thoreau's text by focusing on the language and engaging in discussion.

Big Idea

Making inexperienced readers face challenging language, even though what they want to do is run away.


10 minutes

I want students to understand that this is a central work of the Transcendentalist movement. To introduce this text we look at the title page in their textbook and their American Literature Movements chart that contains important points on different literary movements, one of which is Transcendentalism. I ask students, "What connects this image to Transcendentalism?" With the help of the chart they are able to identify the central place nature takes in this image. They also point to words in the quote: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. I then give them a little background on this work pointing out the following:

  • Thoreau spent a little over two years living by himself in a cottage in the woods.
  • He considered this an experiment.
  • He wrote a book about this experience.
  • The excerpt we are reading is part of one of the chapters in this book.

I can tell by the expression in students’ faces and the whispered comments they are making that they have things to say about the information I just shared about Thoreau and his experiment. I say, “There must be questions and comments in your mind at this point about this guy and what he did so let's hear them.” I get several comments and questions such as:

He is dumb. Why did he do that?

Maybe he went there to find out about himself.

Why did he need to go to the woods?

That sounds kinda cool.

Did he end up liking the woods better than civilization?

I tell them that these are very good questions to ask and to keep them in mind as they read because what we are reading will answer these questions. 


30 minutes

I expect this text to be very challenging for students beginning with the vocabulary so I structure the reading to walk them through the reading to help them access the content. Walking them through the reading means that we are spending quite a bit of time covering a short part, but I am ok with that because they will get a good sense of the type of ideas Thoreau is establishing in this text. I ask students to read the first paragraph of “from Where I Lived And What I Lived For” and to select challenging vocabulary. I ask them to list the challenging vocabulary on a piece of paper. Like I have done in previous lessons, I will give them an opportunity to ask for definitions of these words. I tell them to make sure they are only listing the words that are keeping them from understanding the paragraph. I state that we could probably list 20 words we do not know the definition of, but it is not necessary because we can figure some out using context.

After they have read and listed challenging vocabulary, we spend some time defining them. I do most of the defining using the dictionary app on my phone because it helps me give them a brief and clear definition. During this time students also help by using the classroom dictionary or their own phone. We end up defining the following words: deliberate, essential, sublime, hastily, resignation, marrow, and excursion.

I then ask students to reread the paragraph. This has two purposes. I tell them the first one is pretty obvious. Rereading it after having defined difficult words will help them better understand the paragraph. The second purpose is to give them an opportunity to select one or two powerful quotes by highlighting phrases or sentences. During this time I look over their shoulders to get a sense of what they are highlighting. They do a pretty good job of selecting the important words. One common error was to select the quote Thoreau included at the end of this paragraph. I point out the quotation marks and explain that these are not the author’s words and, by themselves, do not help us understand the author’s point.

I ask students to share what they highlighted. I then tell them we are all focusing on one quote for the next part of the assignment. I ask them to guess which one I am going to ask them all to focus on. To guide them, I tell them that the title lets us know what he is about to explain so they should be looking for that answer. This helps them focus in on the first sentence of the selection and I have them all write it on their paper, if they have not done so already.

I ask them to highlight the most significant words or phrases in the sentence. This is a skill we have been working on and the purpose is to help them pay close attention to the author’s word choice as they attempt to make meaning of what the author says. What I specifically tell them is,  “Identify the words or phrases that are packed with meaning, the ones that catch your attention. These are the words and phrases that can help us make sense of the entire sentence.” They highlight the following: live deliberately, essential, I came to die, discover that I had not lived. At this point they are ready to discuss the meaning of this quote and I want them to have the opportunity to verbalize what they believe it means.

I ask them to discuss with people at their table to figure out the meaning of this quote, focusing on the highlighted words. I give them about 4-5 minutes to talk and I listen in on their conversations. I tell them that they are going to write about this and instruct, “Take advantage of your classmates’ brains.”


10 minutes

I give them the last 10 minutes of class to explain the meaning of the quote in writing. I warn them not to go off topic. We are practicing analyzing the language an author uses. I tell them to stick to what Thoreau believes about living in the woods by yourself for a couple of years, not on what they believe about that. For this, I ask students to focus on what they highlighted. I instruct them to consider what it means to “live deliberately” to “front only the essential things in life” to “not want to find out that you really did not live.” Students write until the end of the period. This is a student response explaining the meaning of Thoreau's quote.