Thoreau and Transcendentalism

In Search of Walden

Ainsley McClachrie, 2023
Glenwood Springs High School 
Glenwood Springs, CO 
Grade 11/American Lit 

The purpose of this one-week mini-unit is to introduce students to the major works and ideas of Henry David Thoreau and the transcendentalist movement. Students will read excerpts of Thoreau’s Walden and will make meaning through engaging activities and collaborative classroom discussion. In order to contextualize Thoreau’s teachings, students will find their own ‘Walden Pond’–a natural place in which they can create and contemplate. At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to identify who Thoreau was, what his main ideas in Walden were, and what transcendentalists believed, and will be able to connect these ideas to their everyday life. 

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Transcendentalism: A Unit of Self Discovery 

Alexis Cournoyer, 2022
Georgetown Middle High School 
Georgetown, MA
HN English II, Grade 11

This unit will be the first literary unit grade 10 students cover after returning back from winter break. In this unit, students will be reading from authors Mary Oliver, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each author is specifically chosen to match discussion questions and/or a journaling prompt. Students will not only identify, discuss, and write about the concepts of these authors’ writing, but hold a mirror up to their own identities. Through journaling assignments, students will write about themselves as learners, places that are important to them, what makes them happy, and what makes them feel like they belong. Students will develop a deeper understanding of transcendentalism by pointing out in their writing what they value and what is important to them individually.  

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Approaching Narrative Writing through the Lens of Thoreau & Transcendentalism

Kathleen Black, 2016
Grafton High School
Grafton, MA
English, Grades 9-12

The following lessons are not contained to one particular unit of study, but rather they are applied to different units throughout the year. Each lesson combines the tenets of Transcendentalism and the teachings of Thoreau. The overarching objective for these lessons is for students to practice narrative writing in response to their observations about American life, literature and art. Most importantly, their work will be a reflection of their own life as 21st Americans, since in order to know the world around them, they must first understand themselves. There are two essential questions that we will come back to throughout the year:

  • What makes American literature American?
  • How do we construct identity through our actions, interests, values, and beliefs?

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Approaching Walden: Nature and the Necessaries of the Soul

Rob Rogers, 2016
De La Salle High School
Concord, CA
English, Grade 11

“Approaching Walden” is a unit designed for high school juniors reading Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Walden as part of a larger unit on Transcendentalist literature. The unit “approaches Walden,” Thoreau’s writing and Transcendentalism in general through an approach Thoreau himself might have recognized, and applauded: asking students to whittle down their possessions, ideas and concepts of self until they discover what is truly necessary and vital in their lives.

Before introducing the unit, the instructor will present two concepts that will later prove vital: the taking of detailed, metacognitive notes using a double-entry journal, and regular reflective journaling at a specific place in nature. The unit properly begins with an introduction to the philosophy of Transcendentalism and to Henry David Thoreau. Students will undertake close readings of “Civil Disobedience” and excerpts from Walden. They will examine both their own essential principles and those of Thoreau, and compare them with those of other Transcendentalist writers. They will participate in a group presentation and a Socratic Seminar. Finally, they will complete an essay as the culminating activity for the entire Transcendentalism unit.

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Identity and Nature and Society: Transcendentalism

Krista Shalkoski, 2016
Burlington High School
Burlington, MA
American Literature, Grade 11, College Prep

Students at Burlington High School spend their junior year focusing on the theme of identity. This includes identity in community/society, race, class, gender, and nature. The Transcendentalism unit focuses on finding identity in Nature and society. With the help of works from Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, students learn to understand their connection with nature, as well as with society. This unit is introduced in the Spring; typically beginning in March and ending in mid-April. It is a 3 week unit which includes readings from Thoreau and Emerson, viewing the film Into the Wild, and culminating in an argumentative essay which focuses on Into the Wild and Transcendental ideas. By the end of this unit, students will understand Transcendental ideas, find importance in the connection with nature, and make connections between society today and society in the 1800s based on Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas.

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Transcendentalism and Thoreau

Jennifer Whitford, 2016
Bishop Kenny High School
Jacksonville, FL
English, Grade 11

This unit will introduce students to Transcendentalism and the works of Henry David Thoreau. The unit will be prefaced by a PowerPoint presentation of my trip to Walden Pond and a brief lecture on my experience. The unit is designed to expose 11th grade students to Thoreau and Transcendentalism. These lessons would be an addition to the lesson plans already in place for Thoreau and Emerson, including the reading of Civil Disobedience and Nature. These lessons push students more toward critiquing, formulating big ideas, and more evaluative writing whereas previous lessons stressed more reading and comprehension of text.

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Speaking with a Loud Voice: The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists

Julia Warren, 2015
Pinecrest High School
Southern Pines, NC
US History, Grade 11

In this unit we will attempt to seek out the transcendentalist in ourselves. We will be examining works of the great transcendentalist writers specifically Thoreau and Emerson and comparing and contrasting the paths they took.We will look at how some people of the 19th century sought a different method of dealing with idealism and naturalism by becoming self-sufficient and removing themselves to a utopian existence.

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Transcendentalist Thought in Mid-19th Century America and How it Affects Me

Tom Sandock, 2012
Acton-Boxborough Regional High School
Acton, MA
U.S. History, Grade 10

Many students of American history are confused by the mid-nineteenth century period, finding it difficult to understand or relate to what life was like during those decades. To many it is a nebulous uncertain period between major historical conflicts. Sandwiched between the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the impending Civil War, little seemed to happen of significance other than a growth in territory and avoidance of disunion. Change appeared to be happening under the surface, but it did not have the obvious and enormous social and political upheaval of the Civil War and later Gilded Age.

However, this period marked a blossoming of American art, thought and philosophy, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Transcendentalist period from the 1830s to 1870s. The objective of this unit is to allow students to understand the major philosophical Transcendentalist thinking at the time, and to relate it to themselves and their experience locally. Transcendentalism is a somewhat scary term, but students will recognize many of its major ideas in their own lives. The writings, philosophies, and material are intricate, rich and difficult to absorb, but so are the lessons and life experiences they go through. Much of the thoughts of that period still resonate strongly today, and go a long way in explaining what it is to be American.

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Having Faith in a Seed

Betsy Geiselman, 2011
Carbondale Community High School
Carbondale, IL
American Literature, Grade 11

Using Thoreau’s observations of seeds and forest growth, and pairing these observations with basic learning about seeds, and a reading of the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, students will use the seed as a metaphor for understanding what it means for people to grow and thrive.  Excerpts of Thoreau’s writing, as well as inquiry based learning labs, will supply necessary background knowledge on seeds.  Seedfolks, a fictional novel about a community garden, will provide a link for students to envision growth in the garden, to consider personal growth, and to examine growth in the community.  Follow up activities including walking through local woods and learning about conservation organizations in the community will help students coalesce this unit of study.

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Understanding Transcendentalism and Discovering a Sense of Place through 21st Century Eyes

Jacquie Carter, 2011
Nashoba Regional High School
Bolton, MA
American Literature, Grade 11, Accelerated

This unit focuses on how Transcendentalism: an American literary, political and philsophical movement of the early 19th century took the idea of living simply, deliberately and by one’s intuition and put it into action, while discovering a “sense of place”. In addition, it concentrates on how this philosophical time period largely through Emerson and Thoreau’s actions, left a lasting legacy.

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What Do I Believe?

Anne-Marie Wayne, 2009
Belmont High School
Belmont, MA
English, Grade 11, Honors

This 13-day unit, as the first unit of a yearlong English 11H course, is designed to introduce students to American guiding values, key concepts, and the course’s essential questions that will be explored throughout the entire year – all of which are focused on the American individual in society. Since course readings are read chronologically, we begin the year with some American writers who set the foundation for the United States: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Jean de Crevecoeur. A Transcendentalist unit follows this one, reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance, American Scholar, Nature; and Thoreau’s Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Life without Principle. Individual writing assignments are designed to connect Thoreau and Emerson’s ideas to the unit’s early American writers. By reading Thoreau and Emerson epigraphs in conjunction with early American texts, students will be exposed to transcendental ideas and texts prior to the Transcendentalist unit and students will thus be better acquainted with the ideas and writing styles of Thoreau and Emerson.

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What is Our American Voice? The Many Voices of Thoreau

Deborah Ellen Weinberg, 2009
Manchester High School
Manchester, CT
American Literature, Grade 11

Thoreau’s quoteable quotes may be familiar to some students, but this unit will look beyond the coffee mug words. Students will explore the quotes of Thoreau, take a local transcendental walk, and then delve deeper into the text behind the quotes. Although the textbook focuses on the label “Transcendentalist,” students will uncover the many voices of Thoreau, from author and surveyor, to scientist and philosopher. Using what they have learned about the world and ideas of the writer, students will take the section of text they have focused on to create a book for a middle school audience.

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Transcendentalism and Reform

Eva Urban Hughes and Erin Lehmann, 2009
Wayland High School
Wayland, MA
American History, Grade 10

Mechanization and the loss of individuality spur the philosophy of transcendentalism and a movement toward self-reliance and away from modernizing forces that are destroying the landscape and social fabric. As Americans redefine themselves in the 1830’s and 40’s, transcendentalism sets a context for a much wider social reform movement in which we try to “fix” the perceived wrongs in America. This unit seeks to understand the tenets of transcendentalism, the influence of H.D. Thoreau on the movement, and the reform movement in and around New England and its impact on American social and political history.

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Transcendentalism: The Individual Gone Wild

Jennifer Britton and Laura Miller, 2009
Westlake High School
Westlake, OH
American Literature, Grade 11, Honors

These two units seek to introduce 11th grade students to Thoreau’s (and other transcendentalist writers’) connection with nature and the individual and 12th grade students to Thoreau’s ideas about an individual’s role in society. In both senses, Thoreau condones a return to the nature of things, whether in nature, or the heart of man.

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Approaching Walden in the Search for Self

John White, 2009
Reading Memorial High School
Reading, MA
English, Grade 10

“Approaching Walden” is a unit specifically designed for high school sophomores reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Students at this age benefit from understanding Thoreau’s points and considering his philosophy in their daily lives. The challenge many of these students face is their ability to realize that comprehension of Walden is well within their means. I have found through experience teaching this work that students will connect with the writing when it is presented in a way that allows them to see its relevance to their lives. They are working at carving out their place in the world, and Thoreau has a great deal to say about this. The unit begins by introducing students the philosophy of Transcendentalism and to Henry David Thoreau. Students will begin reading, discussing and analyzing passages after they have engaged in an activity that causes them to consider the idea. Once students make the connection between the activity and the text, they are prompted to reflect on their thought process through comprehension and analytical questions, writing assignments, and close readings. A final project calls for students to create a symbolic collage focused on a quote from “the Conclusion” or to create a CD with music that reflects the ideas in “the Conclusion.”

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From Desperate to Deliberate: Transcendentalism’s 19th Century Lessons for 21st Century Lives

Shannon Johnson, 2008
Valley High School
West Des Moines, IA
Early American Literature, Grades 10-12

This unit on Transcendentalism attempts to make students more aware of not only the ideas of the Transcendentalists, but also the ways in which their ideas can be meaningful to individuals in the 21st century. Students will be introduced to the key ideas of Transcendentalism and participate in a brief research project and presentation to get a better understanding of the historical and social contexts that influenced the Transcendentalist writers. The first set of lessons focuses on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the need for individuals to trust themselves and their ideas. Next, we’ll explore the relationship between individuals and nature through Emerson’s “Of Nature” and Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” nature journaling, and a field trip to a county park. Selections from Walden will help students to understand the Transcendentalist desire to live deliberately and what that might mean for their own lives. An excerpt from “Civil Disobedience” will allow students to discuss the transition from self to societal reform and how that affects the responsibilities of individuals within a society. As a culmination to the unit, students will complete a final project that asks students to connect their learning to their own lives as they demonstrate their understanding of the Transcendentalists and their ideas.

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A Life Worth Living

Deborah Papin, 2008
Indian River Central High School
Philadelphia, NY
American Literature, Grade 11

The activities in this unit will be interspersed throughout the year. Walden-inspired activities will begin the first full week of school even as we are working on other literary units. These activities will include weekly quotes, place-based assignments and journaling related to key Thoreauvian concepts. One of the main objectives is to encourage students to think about their own ethics and philosophies of life. Throughout earlier units, there will be opportunities to touch on the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau in order to “prime” students for the unit-presented here- focusing on their works. My objective is for students to gradually dip into Walden before taking the full plunge, hopefully making for a more enjoyable swim. After completing the unit on Emerson and Thoreau, there will be continued opportunities to revisit their key philosophies as we continue with other literary works and our continued search for the ingredients of “the life worth living.” During our second quarter of school, we will spend 2- 3 weeks on the Transcendental unit, covering excerpts of Emerson’s Nature and Self-Reliance and Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience. This project emphasizes differentiated learning activities and the incorporation of technology as a means of engaging learners and drawing on multiple intelligences. During the unit, students will engage in group work, jigsaw activities, “think-tac-toes” and other lessons utilizing technology and differentiation strategies.

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Henry David Thoreau: One Path Toward Interbeing

David Rockermann, 2007
Wayland High School
Wayland, MA
American Literature, Grade 11, Honors

This unit will allow students to be able to realize their potential to foster change in their natural, social, and political environments by exploring Thoreau’s contributions as a social critic, a free-thinking individual, and a conservationist.

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Walden – A Sense of Place

Peter Sedlak, 2006
Brookline High School
Brookline, MA
American Literature, Grades 10 and 11, Honors

This 3-4 week unit takes an interdisciplinary approach to teaching about Henry David Thoreau and Walden, in particular. Via journaling and close reading, students will understand Thoreau’s ideas on nature and transcendentalism and, in the process, develop a better sense of a special place to them. The unit will focus on the questions: How does place, particularly a natural place, influence our sense of self? What does it mean for us to be civilized humans in nature? You can use this to enhance a more traditional reading of Walden or to supplement another unit on writing or thinking.

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Documenting Medfield

Miranda Whitmore, 2006
Medfield High School
Medfield, MA
American Literature, Grade 11

Inspired by Thoreau’s connection to his hometown of Concord, students will learn more about their hometown and pick “special” personal/communal/natural spaces to document through writing and photos. Given the knowledge that both cities and nature are constantly interacting and changing, students will venture to capture Medfield in its current shape and quality. Medfield is a small town that prides itself on its long history. Students will present their work together in a public space. It will serve as a gallery for their study of place and allow Medfield residents to share in the celebration of their unique town.

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Thoreau and Transcendentalism

Katie Elsener, 2005
Pius X High School
Lincoln, NE

Through an overview of Henry David Thoreau’s life, writings, and philosophies, students will engage in writing activities and field trips that will encourage them to relate to the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau and be able to apply such wisdom to their lives. Students will be able to think and hopefully live a little more deliberately after exploring and applying Thoreau’s philosophy. Students will find value in the place where they live.

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Walking with Thoreau

Richard Wallace, 2005
Souhegan High School
Amherst, NH
Interdisciplinary, Grades 11 and 12

This course will allow students to learn about Thoreau’s ideas through visual, auditory and authentic learning experiences. Students will be reading, writing, walking, researching, discussing, cooking and sauntering; thoroughly immersed in activities Thoreau engaged in. Students will be “living life” through this course, not just reading about it. Students will be asked to make connections in their own lives to the ideas Thoreau espoused. Some of the questions addressed will be; “What have you learned about yourself in Thoreau’s readings? About values then and today? Students will learn about Thoreau’s fusion of the arts and sciences, which paved the way for authors like Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver and Barry Lopez. There will be one field trip to Walden Pond in Concord, MA, and numerous local “field trips”. Students will keep an extensive journal and complete a culminating project.

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Living Thoreau as a Means of Approaching Walden

Janet Burne, 2001
Reading Memorial High School
Reading, MA
American Literature, Grade 10, Honors

Through individual activities and writing assignments, students will begin to understand the ideas which motivated Thoreau’s essays and his experiment at Walden Pond, and generate their own responses to similar perspectives, gained by participating in activities similar to Thoreau’s. By living, thinking, and writing about experiences which parallel some of Thoreau’s, students will approach Walden with a more personal connection to the text.

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Teacher’s Guide to Transcendentalism

Michael Crim, 1998
Leonardtown High School
Leonardtown, MD
Teacher’s Resource

Language Arts teachers and Social Studies teachers know who Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are and have read at least some excerpts from their books and essays. Many teachers have at least a passing knowledge of the philosophy of Transcendentalism, which underlies the writings of these men. Unfortunately, reading a few excerpts and a surface familiarity with a complex philosophy are not adequate foundations for teaching Transcendentalism. The purpose of this guide is to give both English and Social Studies teachers, as well as any other teacher who is interested in introducing his or her students to this important topic, the basic information they would need to present lessons and units of study on Transcendentalism with some coherence and depth.

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Meet Mr. Thoreau

Bill Schechter, 1997
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School
Sudbury, MA
Meet Mr. Thoreau: An Elective

In this semester-long elective course, students become familiar with Thoreau as a naturalist, a social critic, a political rebel, and a man in the 1800s. By exploring his writing, recreating his world, and practicing his lifestyle, students learn first-hand the details of Thoreau’s philosophy, and understand why Thoreau thought the way he did. We will use a regular classroom for discussions of readings, etc. But at other times we will be up and around: Camping, boating, working in the wood shop, taking photographs, going for walks, watching the sun rise over Walden Pond, re-tracing Thoreau’s footsteps in Concord, etc. The ultimate goal of the course is for the students not only to understand Thoreau, but also to connect them to the place in which they live, so they understand the unique history of the Concord area.

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