Close Reading: Henry David Thoreau "Economy"

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SWBAT establish the central idea of a complex nineteenth century text and relate it to the modern world.

Big Idea

Classic texts come alive when you relate them to the modern world.


Today we will have a second day of practicing interpretation of older texts by looking at an excerpt from “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau (pg. 474-477 of Language of Composition 2e).    In this excerpt a key term is “necessities”—Thoreau’s interpretation of this term, along with a couple others, is important to understanding the meaning of the text.  So, it is a chance to address Reading Informational text standard number four regarding how an author refines and builds meaning of words throughout a text.  The students will accomplish this, as well practice other close reading skills, through a group text rendering protocol.

Text Rendering Protocol

70 minutes

The students will not have read this at home because I want them to practice reading and responding to complex texts in the moment as they prepare for the AP exam.  So, their first job will be to read the text individually and write down two statements they think are central to understanding Thoreau’s views.  Additionally, they will write a key word they think is essential to the central idea.

Once they’ve read (about fifteen minutes), we will follow a text-rendering protocol (this protocol is adapted from The National School Reform Faculty protocol of the same name:  text_rendering.pdf) in small groups that we’ve used before in order to practice honing in on key words and sentences in a text (I find this skill particularly useful in complex older texts—students can find a sentence or phrase that makes sense to them use that as a starting point for deeper meaning).  The way this works is simple:  the students are in a group of three or four (I will probably make groups today).   For the first round, each person in the group shares a sentence he or she thinks is particularly significant to the meaning of the text (they don’t share why yet, because then the conversation may go on a tangent before others get to share their initial ideas, leading sometimes to less participation).

For the second round, each person shares a phrase, and for the third, a single word.  For this third round, because each person has had a chance to speak and get involved, I will also as the students to briefly explain why they chose the word (this will help as they move into the discussion phase of the protocol).

Once all three rounds are done, the group will then be asked to discuss what they heard, and what it says about the document (earlier in the year I had groups choose a “facilitator” whose job it is to make sure everyone gets a turn, etc.  However, this particular class has become so comfortable with each other, I don’t think that is necessary today).

After they’ve had a chance to explore the text on their own without any prompts of topics, I will have the groups take their books out and turn to the questions in the text on pg. 477, and particularly questions two and three (Thoreau Economy Questions-1.m4v).  In their groups, they will discuss each of these questions for about ten minutes before bringing their thoughts to the entire class.

In the full class discussion, I will start by asking how the groups defined the terms “necessity” and “luxuries” before talking about the answer to the question itself to model the importance of defining key terms that some texts seem to revolve around, and explore the particular meaning Thoreau has for these terms.  Once these terms are defined, I will ask one group to share their conversation about question three, and ask other groups to chime in and add to the discussion with things they spoke about in their groups.  Once question two seems exhausted, we will move to question three (as part of the final part of each question which asks students to connect Thoreau’s views to the modern world, I will more specifically ask students to relate what he is writing about to Nickel and Dimed and what business owners seem to deem as necessities versus luxuries).