Role of the Individual

Seeing with Henry David Thoreau: Experience, Writing and Reflection as a Way to Wisdom

Rebecca DelMonico, 2016
Masconomet Regional High School
Boxford, MA
American Literature, Grade 11, Honors

Reading Henry David Thoreau’s writing, unlike the novels, short fiction, plays, and poetry the students most often read, affords a teenager a rare model for how to examine one’s life – not just live it. Thoreau’s essays are not fiction, but artistically composed texts we don’t just read but “live with” as Bob McCloy described. This unit on Thoreau instructs students in ways to create, reflect on, and write about real experience, particularly the sorts involving nature, self-reform, and social responsibility. When Thoreau asks us if we “will” be a “seer” or merely a student, he suggests that we will be something inevitably, but that we also have a choice as to what we will be. I want students to choose to be seers – introspective thinkers who question reality to find their own truths – and I believe studying Thoreau can convince them to do so. This unit also serves to teach students the tenets of Transcendentalist thought in the context of their parallel study of American history.

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Balancing Rights and Responsibilities

Kelly Mills, 2016
DeQueen High School
DeQueen, AR
Street Law, Grades 10-12

This lesson will examine the differences between rights and responsibilities of citizens. In the process, students will explore the commonly held idea that Americans, in general, are far more fixated on their rights, but often neglect their responsibilities. They will create posters to encourage and inform citizens what their rights and responsibilities are. Students will also examine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and use it to question current situations in our country to see if the declaration is being violated and if so, which articles. Finally, after familiarizing themselves with the primary document (UDHR), the final assessment will be a project completed by students as they research current human rights violations around the world. Students will discover the many social injustices that are still taking place despite the signing of the UDHR, in 1948. They will be asked to formulate questions that they want to answer about their topic and create a multimedia project and present their findings to the class. In addition, they must come up with one what that he/she can personally affect his/her human rights violation here at home.

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Live Simply: Finding Thoreau in the American Teenagers World

Gregory Bruce, 2015
Belmont High School
Belmont, MA
Special Education: Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Program, Grades 9-12

In today’s world many of our students (and sometimes the adults who teach them) go through their day-to-day activities without taking much time to think, reflect, or observe the world around them.  Rather, they rush from activity to activity, are plugged into electronics all day, and often lose sight of not only their role in the world, but also the world itself.  The aim of this unit is to use Thoreau’s words and writings, to help peel back the barriers that stand between my students and the wonders of the world around them.

Working in a program that supports students with social, emotional, behavioral and/or learning challenges I have a great opportunity to look for pathways to introduce my students to new ideas and concepts.  As an educator, I always work to show my students different ways to think, but strive to never tell them what to think.  In this vain, I aim to utilize our weekly group lessons to introduce them to different ideas that relate to Thoreau’s writings and beliefs as well as today’s world in order to make it relevant to their own lives. Additionally, the unit will also work to help them gain a ‘Sense of Place’ in their own community.  Among the concepts we will focus on include perspective taking, living simply, observing nature and following their own path.

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If I Am Not I, Who Will Be?

Erin Palazzo, 2015
Shrewsbury High School
Shrewsbury, MA
AP English and Composition, Grade 11

Using the students’ summer work with Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the guided journal entries they completed with the latter reading, this year-opening unit serves as a platform for establishing routines, expectations, and skill requirements for the AP English Language & Composition course.  Additionally, it will help students look critically at an author’s body of work, recognize his distinct voice, and understand the impact of the environment around him (historically, culturally, and environmentally) in shaping his life & writing.

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Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson: Finding the “I” in SocIety

Maureen Kavanaugh, 2014
Newton North High School
Newton, MA
English, Grade 11

By reading Emerson, Thoreau and Dickinson, students will be introduced to individuals whose writing and, in the case of Thoreau and Dickinson, whose lifestyles were nonconformist for their times. Students will also be keeping a String Journal (courtesy of Janet Burne), participate in several Thoreau exercises (again, courtesy of Janet Burne), and final write a personal essay in which they choose someone from their own lives who upholds the transcendental principle of being true to oneself. The goal with the writing exercises is to have students see that even though these writers wrote in the 19th century about their society, their ideas still have resonance today. As juniors, my students are at the crossroads of their high school career, making decisions about life after high school while also balancing peer, family, and teacher pressures. I want by students to live deliberately and to choose an authentic path for themselves. I hope this unit makes them think about what they truly want and how to make it possible.

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Towards a Better Society: Utilizing the Rhetoric of Persuasion to Create Positive Change in One’s Own Place

Terry McCafferty, 2012
St. Ignatius High School
Cleveland, OH
English, Grades 9 and 10

This unit of my American Literature course seeks to empower students to advocate for a better society through their written words — in this case through the form of a formally written persuasive letter to be sent to a legitimate audience. This culminating project emerges from the study of works of two prominent American figures, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose legacies exemplify the power and responsibility of an individual to discern truth and act in accordance with his or her own conscience. Studying “On Resistance to Civil Government” and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” together offers an opportunity to see how a writer from one historical context can influence the thinking, writing, and actions of an individual at a later point in time. I want them to realize that they too are a part of this tradition.

This unit asks students to produce an authentic piece of writing that emerges from a personal investment in and a love of place. It is my hope that the desire to envision a better place upon recognizing the imperfections/shortcomings inherent in human constructed societies develops from this love of place. Students will be given freedom to choose an aspect of their lives that is important to them and this will serve to be their inroads to conduct authentic research. The act of publishing the letter to an authentic audience grounds their work for achieving change. The letter will be sent via snail mail (which I argue holds a heightened value in contrast to the daily patterns of high speed communication in our contemporary society.) In order to write persuasively, the students must contemplate the context of the situation, the viewpoints of the audience (including viewpoints different than their own), and the most effective style, tone, and diction to utilize in getting one’s own ideas across effectively to other individuals.

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Watch! Notice! Observe! Designing a Schoolyard Field Guide in Conjunction with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Amy Krajeck, 2010
Portsmouth High School
Portsmouth, NH
English, Grade 9

This unit is grounded in the essential question, “How can an individual’s sense of place influence identity and the decisions he/she makes?” A part of our ninth grade literature curriculum theme: Celebration of the Individual, this project aims to increase student achievement by integrating nature journaling enhanced by iPod Touch mobile devices and field guide applications, class collaboration on a schoolyard field guide, reading and physcializing Lawrence and Lee’s The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail and various passages/excerpts from Thoreau’s Walden.

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Food, Community, and the Environment:  Brookline, Boston, and Beyond

Amy Morrissey, 2010
Brookline High School
Brookline, MA
English and Social Studies, Grade 12

This unit is part of The Good Citizen in the Good Society course, an interdisciplinary team -taught English and Social Studies class with a social justice focus.  The essential questions include: 1) How is place important to my identity as an individual, community member, and citizen?; 2) What are the responsibilities of citizens and societies in today’s climate crisis; 3) What are the individual, social and environemtnal impacts of the food I eat? 4) How can I/we take individual and collective action on issues of food and the environment?

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How They See Us & How We See Ourselves

Helena Bresnick, 2010
Westwood High School
Westwood, MA
American Literature, Grade 11

The goal of the American Literature unit is to help students discover their own identities as American, and on a smaller scale, as citizens in Westwood, MA. The unit includes activities ranging from journaling to watching a documentary about how people from around the world perceive the United States.  The essential curriculum question addressed in this unit is:  What role does American society play in forming individual identity?

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A Man of Many Lives: Thoreau and Society

Amy Willard, 2009
Tantasqua Regional High School
Fiskdale, MA
American Literature, Grades 11 and 12

Who are we as individuals? What can we, as individuals, do to improve our society? Students will use the play, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, as their primary text. We will discuss the issues at work in Thoreau’s society and in the play, with special attention to three spheres: Natural Environment, Social Environment, and Political Environment. Students will use these three spheres as a touch-point for exploring their own social consciousness and personal philosophy. Through studying Thoreau’s character and writings, students will come to realize that a person cannot be defined by one single aspect of their lives; rather, the individual is a compilation of many different beliefs, roles, and activities.. Students will explore the many facets of their own lives through examining Thoreau’s life and works. Since our focus is on how the individual interacts with society, students will wrap up their study of Thoreau by creating an environmental action project for our community and writing a grant application (for a fictitious grant) to complete that project. Class will take place outside whenever possible.

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Living Deliberately

Andrea Kalember, 2009
Belmont High School
Belmont, MA
English, Grade 12, Advanced Placement

For this senior Advanced Placement unit, the organizing or essential question will be: “How can individuals most deliberately engage with their local surroundings?” We will consider this question using readings and quotations from the nonfiction essays of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we will revisit/reread some excerpts or chapters from Walden, which students read as part of the junior year curriculum. The subtopics of the unit include: engaging environmentally, engaging economically, engaging socially, and engaging politically. Students will participate in activities ranging from close observation to class discussion. Students will also complete writing assignments to include journal entries and a formal essay.

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Wide Awake in America: A Place of Reform

Mark Reynolds, 2009
Belmont High School
Belmont, MA
American Literature, Grade 11

This four week unit follows a unit entitled “The British are Leaving!: America as a Place of Revolution” and leads into a unit on American Romanticism. These entries will – fingers crossed – introduce students to the values of observation and self-reflection; two key values that they will further develop an appreciation for during the “Wide Awake” unit. The readings will consist largely of excerpts from Emerson’s essays (“Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar,” “The Divinity School Address”) and Thoreau’s work (selected passages from Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” “Walking,” and “Life Without Principle”). Students will also read Margaret Fuller’s “Farewell,” make connections to various poems/songs (e.g., “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads), and view Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.  While I will stress the honing of specific reading and writing skills (e.g., annotations, literary devices, revisions), the main objective of the unit will involve providing students with the tools to meaningfully explore who they are and what their place is in their school, their neighborhood, and their community at large. These tools will include reconsidering what observation really is; using metacognition to make the process of self-reflection more approachable; and making text to text connections and text to self connections.

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Henry David: One COOL Dude

Susan M. Stephenson, 2009
Seneca Valley Senior High School
Harmony, PA
American English, Grade 11, Honors

Henry David was a pretty cool guy; unfortunately many students don’t quite see him that way. For some students, particularly those who have spent a great deal of time in the outdoors, they “get him” almost immediately. Others have difficulty making the connection. This unit is designed to arouse student interest through the idea of creating a life worth living. Students are asked first to think about people they admire and then to settle on someone specific in order to generate a list of those behaviors which they would like to emulate. As the unit progresses students will broaden their perspectives of what constitutes a life worth living. This is achieved through class discussions, exposure to many of the major aphorisms from Thoreau, and finally reading “Life Without Principle” and then translating for the 21st century. Ultimately they will create a personal “Life With Principle.” Along the way students will work on interpretation skills, developing and supporting ideas, improvement of writing skills, and some fun things like making a the “on-the-go” playlist for Henry’s iPod and writing the transcript of his radio interview where he shares his playlist and theme song. Students will also spend some time outdoors observing nature and experiencing solitude.

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Walk it Like You Talk It: Thoreau’s Philosophy of Doing

Mark Earley, 2008
Belmont High School
Belmont, MA
American Literature, Grade 11, Honors

This unit is designed for use in an 11th grade honors American Literature course. The focus of the course centers on an examination of the American Dream through various works and literary movements. The scope of this particular unit is to introduce students to the work of Henry David Thoreau and allow them to explore his philosophy as it applies to and intersects with their own lives. Before beginning this unit students will have read a few of the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, notably “Self Reliance,” as well as excerpts from “Nature” (Introduction), and “The American Scholar”. Students will have also explored various definitions of Transcendentalism. The unit will explore several Essential Questions (EQs) gleaned from Thoreau’s writings that will lead to active engagement with and application of the author’s ideas. By using an experiential, place-based pedagogy that emphasizes hands-on modalities students will be able to intuit the moral imperatives found in Thoreau’s philosophy.

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Life is a Journey and This Much I Know for Sure

Barbara McCoy, 2007
Eastport South Manor High School
Manorville, NY
English, Grade 12

Designed for use in 12th grade English Language Arts, this multidisciplinary unit will use social studies, science, art and descriptive/figurative writing to explore the theme Life is a Journey. Students will Meet Mr. Thoreau, the philosopher, poet/writer, social conscience, and naturalist through the exploration of Thoreau’s writings. Students well develop understandings of the complexities of life: not as a single journey but as multiple journeys combined. Life is a Highway presents a metaphor that illustrates that life is filled with smooth and rough times, endless possibilities and roadblocks and that the detours we decide to take, our decisions, affect not only the present, but the future as well. The goal of this unit is to heighten students’ awareness of the power of thinking and to expose students to the importance of their thinking about ideas and issues in relation to themselves and others.

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Thoreau: Exploring Sense of Place in Society

Katie Hillstrom, 2006
Winchester High School
Winchester, MA
English, Grade 10

The second semester of the 10th grade year is entitled “American Dream”. The Thoreau Unit will be introduced near the beginning of the semester, since Thoreau was one of our earliest recognized American writers. We will explore all of these ideas related to Thoreau: sense of place, the outsider, freedom, and what it means to “live deliberately,” be successful, etc. (American Dream ideas), which will serve as a doorway to understanding what it means to have a “place” in society vs. being an outsider. The ideas developed during these lessons will be used to guide students through the rest of the literature associated with the “American Dream” concept.

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Directing the Eye: Interior and Exterior Landscapes

Teresa Sutton, 2006
John Jay High School
Hopewell Junction, NY
English, Grade 11

Henry David Thoreau believed that one did not need to search the world over to learn about life or to gain insight into oneself. Individuals have endless regions to explore in their own backyards and within themselves. Part 1 of this unit allows students to turn their own eyes inward and explore their developing beings and the area close to their homes. Part 2 allows students to learn all about the Historic Hudson River Valley, where they live. Both parts give students an opportunity to do service. In Part 1, the stewardship is directed toward the self. Learning self-nurturing is an important step in maturing, whether you grow up in a home that helps you develop a strong sense of self-esteem and belonging or not. In Part 2, the stewardship is directed towards the larger community. Students will learn that they can do something positive to help their community and the environment.

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Place in the World

Alison Van Vort, 2005
Odyssey High School
South Boston, MA
English, Grade 12

Designed for a high school English class, this unit devotes a great deal of energy to the writing process, including reflective journaling, formal prose, and editing (as well as additional language arts components). The main goals of the unit are to heighten students’ awareness of their social, cultural, ecological, and political surroundings, and to get them to think about their own place within these matrices. It is composed of three general sections: learning about where you live through observation, reflection, and first-hand experience; learning about where you live through research and investigation; and learning about your responsibility and power as individuals and writers.

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