Today marks the end of the Transcendentalist unit and I want to wrap up our brief study of Transcendentalism by reading a couple of excerpts form Thoreau’s Walden and mimicking the author. The specific excerpts I have chosen to read are structured in similar ways. They both begin with a detailed description of an element in nature followed by insights about life that these observations allowed Thoreau to reach. I communicate this to students and point it out as we read the two excerpts. The first excerpt is “from Solitude” and the second one is “from Brute Neighbors.” I read them aloud to them. I do this because I want us to get through this reading fast and also because I can point out things I want them to pay attention to, specifically the structure I have already described for them. Students appreciate learning of how Thoreau learned about life through observations he made in the midst of nature.
As we read, I prompt students to remember why Thoreau went to Walden. They are able to remember Thoreau’s statement that he went there “to live life deliberately” and not feel that he had not lived. After reading the first excerpt, I ask them to identify what he learned about life. Several students respond and together they are able to say that Thoreau is speaking of the value of solitude, of our place in the universe, and his belief that we have no reason to feel lonely when we spend time alone in the wilderness. Students are essentially explaining a central point Thoreau makes in this excerpt. I ask the same after I read the second excerpt and students are able to discuss the connections Thoreau made between the ants he observed and human soldiers at war. By the end of this discussion, students understand what I stated earlier, which is that in these two excepts we read a detailed description of something Thoreau observed in nature followed by some realization he made about life and they can see the significance of this. In this way, I am able to focus students' attention on the structure of these excerpts as well as the content.
I let students know that we are mimicking Thoreau today. The plan is to walk outside and spend some time with nature. The obvious question is: Nature - in Los Angeles? I point out that there are students in other places who would be able to walk outside of their classroom and not have to walk too far to be surrounded by nature, but clearly we are not in this type of place. Still, I explain, the topic of nature is absolutely relevant in this urban city, even if mostly to highlight the lack of. Whereas the abundance of nature inspires someone who does what Thoreau did, the limited access to nature can also tell us about our lives. I instruct students to feel free to expand the definition of nature today. The task I give them is to select an element of nature outside and spend time observing it closely. They are to then write a detailed description of the element they chose. They are then to attempt to make connections between that element and something about our lives. For the first part of the task, I invite them to get creative with what they consider a natural element in our environment. For the second task I let them know that I am not expecting them to come up with profound insights into life in the next half hour, but I do want them to think of what the natural elements they selected say about our lives.
We walk outside. I instruct them to spend the entire time outside in silence, as they are to focus on a detailed description of the element they selected. I do have to tell them that when they start writing they must remember that a written detailed description requires lots of adjectives and description using the five senses. In this video, students observe and write about the natural element they selected. The sounds are peaceful enough to allow them to engage in this activity, though it is interesting to hear the hum of the nearby freeway, typical surround sound of this urban school. What I am trying to do is allow students to reflect on this natural, or rather unnatural environment. Some students are choosing to focus on the sound of the freeway or the concrete that predominates.
While students work outside, I check in with students periodically to make sure they have selected an element to write about. I do this to keep them on task. After they have been observing for about 10 minutes, I announce that they need to start writing already so that they can finish this by the end of the period.