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HomeClassroom ResourcesLesson Plans

Lesson Plan

Examining Transcendentalism through Popular Culture

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Examining Transcendentalism through Popular Culture

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Unit
Estimated Time Eight 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Sharon Webster

Narragansett, Rhode Island

Publisher

National Council of Teachers of English

 

Student Objectives

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six

Session Seven

Session Eight

Extensions

Student Assessment/Reflections

 

STUDENT OBJECTIVES

Students will:

  • identify elements of transcendentalism such as the connection between people and nature, an individual's ability to think freely, and the importance of spiritual self-reliance to the individual found in the works of Emerson and Thoreau.
  • identify the elements of transcendentalism as represented in present-day genres (comic strips, lyrics, and music).
  • investigate the representation of transcendentalist thought in social commentaries.
  • develop their own views on the subjects of individualism, nature, and passive resistance.

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Session One

  1. Introduce the basic characteristics and historical background of the transcendentalist movement. The following explanation can be used as a starting place:

    From 1840-1855, literature in America experienced a rebirth called the New England Renaissance. Through their poetry, short stories, novels, and other works, writers during this period established a clear American voice. No longer did they see their work as less influential than that of European authors. Transcendentalism was a part of this "flowering" of American literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were important voices in this philosophical movement that sought to have individuals "transcend" to a higher spiritual level. To achieve this goal, the individual had to seek spiritual, not material, greatness and the essential truths of life through intuition. Emerson was the philosopher and teacher. Thoreau was the student and the practitioner. To learn more about this complex philosophy visit the Web of American Transcendentalism.

  2. Invite students to discuss the concepts of transcendentalism by considering the following questions. You may wish to write these questions on the board or chart paper for students to refer to.  Students can work in small groups.
    • How are you affected by nature? Do you find comfort in it? Do you reflect the moods of nature?
    • What is the role of nature in your life?
    • What is meant by an individual's spiritual side? How to you define it?
    • Is there a connection between the individual's spirit and nature? If so, what is that connection?
    • What does it mean to know something intuitively? For example, has a parent or a sibling ever known something was wrong with you without having talked with or seen you? What do we mean when we say "I just know it"?
    • How do you demonstrate that you are an individual? Do you think independently of others or do you follow the crowd?
  3. Circulate among groups as they work. Ask students to record their answers on chart paper and post for the class as they finish their responses to the questions.
  4. Ask groups to share their notes with the class as you note similarities among the findings.
  5. By the end of the session, you should have established a shared, class definition of transcendentalism.  Post this definition on the board or chart paper for the students to refer to in following sessions.

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Session Two

  1. Read and discuss the excerpt you've chosen from Emerson's "Nature" with students, using the following questions to guide your exploration of the text. Questions a-d establish basic details. Questions e-f require more abstract thinking.  You may wish to post these questions for students to refer to during your discussion.
    • What different moods does Emerson note in the excerpt?
    • How is nature connected to these moods?
    • What effect does nature have on Emerson? What does he mean when he says "I become a transparent eyeball"?
    • In what ways does Emerson connect nature, humankind, and God?
    • In what way does Nature serve as a teacher?
    • How is nature portrayed as noble? As a source of comfort?
    • How are human beings represented as part of nature?
    • What can human beings learn from nature? How does this learning affect the individual's spirituality?
  2. Give students a few minutes to identify key quotations from the excerpt that reveal Emerson's thinking about the relationship between humans and nature and to record their observations in their journals. Encourage students to explain the relationship between the quotations they've chosen and the basic characteristics of transcendentalism, as identified in the previous session.
  3. After students have all had a chance to identify a quotation, ask them to share their quotation and ideas with the class.

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Session Three

  1. Return to the ideas gathered in the previous sessions and summarize what you've discovered about transcendentalism to this point.
  2. Introduce Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" as another text that demonstrates transcendental thought.
  3. Read and discuss the excerpt you've chosen from Emerson's "Self-Reliance" with the students, using the following questions to guide your exploration of the text.  You may wish to post these questions for students to refer to during your discussion.
    • What does Emerson mean when he says that "envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide"?
    • What does he want each individual to recognize about him/herself? What does he say about "power" and "work"?
    • How is trust a part of being self-reliant?
    • Why does Emerson see society as the enemy of individuality?
    • What is the role of nonconformity? What did that word mean to Emerson?
    • What is a "foolish consistency"? How does it get in the way of genius?
  4. Ask students to identify the key elements of self-reliance as defined by Emerson in their readings. These elements should be generated by the responses to the questions.
  5. To summarize the characteristics of transcendental thought covered so far in the lesson, have students fill in the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive or handout. If time is short, this work can be completed as homework.
  6. Collect and review the graphic organizer to check students' understanding to this point.

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Session Four

  1. Return to students' observations on the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive or handout. Invite students to share their findings and answer any questions about transcendentalism that they have at this point.
  2. Read the excerpts from Thoreau's Walden.
  3. Ask students to identify how Thoreau is practicing the philosophy Emerson writes about in the excerpts read previously. Students can use the information that they have recorded on the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive or handout as a resource at this point.
  4. Explain the historical connection between the two writers: Emerson as teacher and Thoreau as practitioner.
  5. If desired, students can complete the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive or copies of the handout again, this time recording examples from Thoreau's writings as a class, in small groups, or individually.
  6. Ask students to go back to the questions they answered in Session One, and have them revise their responses based on what they have learned so far about Transcendentalism.
  7. By the end of the session, you should have revised and clarified your class definition of transcendentalism (post/repost this new definition). Students should have a good working knowledge of the characteristics of transcendentalism before moving on to the next session.

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Session Five

  1. Explain that during the next few sessions, you'll look for examples of transcendental thought in popular culture. In particular, you'll be looking at comic strips and songs, but encourage students to share examples that they find in other media as well (e.g., sitcoms, television dramas, children's cartoons, movies, commercials).
  2. Divide students into small groups, and provide each group with copies of several comic strips that reflect the transcendental qualities discussed to this point (see the article "Multigenre, Multiple Intelligences, and Transcendentalism" for examples and ideas). Ideally, if you have published collections of comic strips available, each group can search a book.
  3. Ask the students to read the strips paying close attention to both the text and the drawings with the goal of identifying the literary elements of transcendentalism.
  4. Review the characteristics of transcendentalism from previous sessions.
  5. Give the groups 15 to 20 minutes to read and enjoy the comics, asking them to find connections to the concepts you've discussed regarding transcendentalism. In their groups, ask students to record their findings using the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive or copies of the handout.
  6. After the allotted reading time, each group can share at least two comics that they've identified that have strong literary connections to the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau. As students share the comic strips, encourage them to discuss specific lines from the texts that you've studied that can be connected to the comics.
  7. As a homework assignment, students can locate other examples of comics that would provide literary links to what you've studied and bring those comics to class along with a paragraph of explanation. If desired, you could extend the lesson by inviting students to find examples in any media (e.g., sitcoms, television dramas, commercials) rather than limiting them to finding comic strips. Any connection to the ideas of transcendentalism is valid evidence of students' understanding of the concept—no need to limit their exploration to comics!

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Session Six

  1. Spend the first 15–20 minutes of the session inviting students to share the examples that they found. Encourage students to connect the examples they've found to the examples from previous sessions.
  2. Explain that during this session you'll begin looking for examples of transcendentalism in songs. If one of your students has shared an example song for the homework, be sure to point to that song as an example of the kind of resources you'll be looking for during the next sessions.
  3. Play the example song that you've chosen for students. Provide copies of the lyrics if possible.
  4. Ask students to listen carefully and follow along with the lyrics while the song is playing. If students have copies of the lyrics, they can underline or highlight the relevant lyrics. Otherwise, ask students to write any words they hear that suggest the ideas of transcendentalism in their journals.
  5. After the song has finished playing, ask students to share their observations. Encourage students to make connections to the readings and the comic strips, as appropriate.
  6. For a more structured analysis, you can work as a class to complete the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive using an LCD project or to complete an overhead of the handout.
  7. Once you've explored the lyrics for an example song, explain the project that students will complete. Ask students to consider their own favorite songs and to bring a song to class—along with the lyrics and a brief paragraph of explanation of the connection between their choice and the ideas you've been exploring. Ideally, you should have some CDs or MP3s available in the classroom for students to choose from as well. If your library has music resources, be sure to point students to these collections as well. Be sure to provide enough options that students will be able to find a song to share regardless of the resources they may own personally.
  8. Remind students of the any school guidelines regarding violent or explicit lyrics. Students should choose songs that are appropriate to share with the class.
  9. If your school's guidelines allow, you might invite students to bring personal CD players to the next class session to facilitate sharing the songs.

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Session Seven

  1. Play portions of songs expressing transcendental thought between classes and for the first few minutes of the period. Post chart paper around the room, listing musical genres—oldies/classics, pop/rock, R&B/rap, new age/classical, country. You may want to adjust the categories based on the kinds of music students show an interest in. For instance, you might separate R&B and rap if there are many songs in the two categories that students have brought to share.
  2. Invite students to discuss the reasons that the songs fit the characteristics of transcendental thought while the songs are playing.
  3. Take a few minutes for students to share some of the titles that they identified.
  4. Divide students into four to five small groups. Each group should have a CD player/MP3 player available so that students can play the songs that they've brought to class. If your facilities allow, spread groups out.
  5. Allow students the remainder of the class to explore the songs they've found.
  6. Taking turns, students from each group can add the artist and title for songs that they've identified to the chart paper in the room.

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Session Eight

  1. Again, play portions of songs expressing transcendental thought between classes and for the first few minutes of the period.
  2. Provide time, if necessary, for groups to finish sharing their songs and recording artists and titles on the chart paper.
  3. Gather students together, and review the information on the posted chart paper.
  4. Ask students to share observations regarding the songs in the categories. The following questions can help guide the discussion:
    • Which category has the most songs?
    • What did you expect to see on the charts? Do they match your expectations?
    • What surprises do you see about the lists?
    • Are there kinds of songs that aren't well-represented?
    • What would happen if songs were divided further, into sub-genres (e.g., heavy metal, alternative rock)?
    • Are there artists whom you think of as following transcendental ideas? Do their songs represent those ideas?
    • How do the songs that are listed represent your (e.g., the students') individualism?
  5. For a more structured analysis of the songs, you can work as a class to complete the Examples of Transcendental Thought interactive using an LCD project or to complete an overhead of the handout.
  6. Return to the class definition of transcendentalism. Ask students to consider how the class exploration of comic strips and music affect the definition. Revise the definition to fit students' observations (post/repost this new definition).
  7. Assign the final project for the unit, which will be used to assess students' understanding of the characteristics of transcendentalism. Provide students with another copy of the Examples of Transcendental Thought handout and the rubric for the activity.  Allow time for students to discuss and ask questions about the assignment and rubric.
  8. Make a point of explaining whether students can return to songs and comics for their final project, depending upon your goals. If you prefer that students use new genres for this final activity, you may adjust the rubric.
  9. As a class, brainstorm examples of resources that students can consult as they complete their charts. Encourage students to consider print and nonprint resources from a variety of genres and sources as they build their list of potential resources.

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EXTENSIONS

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STUDENT ASSESSMENT/REFLECTIONS

  • Ongoing assessment for this activity should be based on observation of students’ work on the various genres considered by the class.
  • Use the final project to gauge students’ comprehension of the characteristics of transcendentalism and their ability to analyze resources independently. Generally speaking, if students are able to complete the chart for the final project with specific examples from popular culture resources, they comprehend the characteristics of the transcendental movement. The rubric for the final project can structure your feedback for individual students.

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