The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.
In July I participated in a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop titled “The Concord Landscapes and Legacy of Henry Thoreau.” The experience was so professionally and personally invigorating I developed not one, but two ideas about how to explore the philosophies and work of Thoreau in your classroom or library. The first idea, which was the subject of last month’s Teacher’s Corner post, relates to turning your classroom or library into a community of writers. My second idea is the subject of this post, which outlines six mini-lessons I developed as part of the workshop.
Every day at my school, students have a 30 minute remediation period. Students are able to use this time for a variety of academic purposes, including self-selected programming. Each session is meant to fit into one of these time slots. This experience might work well for you in class over a few days or weeks.
Session 1: Introductions and Where’s Your Walden?
The focus of this session is on making introductions and sharing the scope of the remaining sessions. Share the essential question: In what ways can exploring the philosophies of transcendentalism and Henry David Thoreau guide our lives today? Begin by watching this short film produced by the Walden Woods Project to prompt participants to come to the next session prepared to share an answer to the question: Where’s your Walden?
Session 2: How might we “live deliberately?”
Have participants share their answers to the above question. Then, introduce this session’s focusing quotation:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise [sic] resignation, unless it was quite necessary.¹
Ask participants to jot down ideas about what the quotation, and specifically the word “deliberately,” means to them. Pair them to share their thinking. Ask participants to return next time to share one way in which they think they do or can “live deliberately.”
Session 3: Are we living desperate lives?”
Begin by asking participants to share their reflections on how they do or can “live deliberately.” Next, share this quotation:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.²
Ask participants to discuss as a full group or in small conversations what they believe Thoreau means by “quiet desperation.” Continue with: In what ways is the concept of “living deliberately” a counter to “living desperate lives”? What makes you say that? Ask participants to return next time to share ways they believe they can avoid living in quiet desperation.
Session 4: “Going before the mast” in our lives
Begin the session by hearkening back to the previous session and thoughts about living in quiet desperation. Move the discussion forward with the quotation:
I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.³
Ask: What might Thoreau have been advocating for in these lines? Ask participants to sketch (visually or verbally) one way in which they do or would like to “go before the mast.” Ask them to bring their sketches to the next session.
Session 5: The role of solitude, friendship, and society
Ask participants to share their sketches from the previous session by laying them anonymously on a table or posting on a board. Ask everyone to observe and offer insights about what they see to make connections to Thoreau’s words about “go[ing] before the mast.” Next, share this final quotation:
I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.4
Open the discussion by asking: In what way is Thoreau talking about more than the furniture in a home? Why are all three (solitude, friendship, and society) important in our lives? What makes you say that? For the next and final session ask participants to think about how they include all three in their own lives. Ask: Where/How do you see the role of the three elements in your life?
Session 6: Conclusion
Start the session by asking participants to share what they discovered or concluded about the three elements in their lives.
There are a number of ways to conclude the six sessions, but circling back to the essential question—“How can philosophies of the past, specifically those of Henry David Thoreau, guide our lives today?—may work best. Also consider engaging participants with a final discussion prompted by any or all of the following:
- Which of the quotations used during the lessons is most relevant to you and your experiences? Why?
- What changes might you make or habits might you adopt after the sessions?
Please let us know in the comments if you try any of these exercises with your students.
1. From Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” (p. 86), in Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York, The Modern Library, 2000. References below are to pages in this edition of Walden and Other Writings.
2. From “Economy,” p. 8.
3. From “Conclusion,” p. 303.
4. From “Visitors,” p. 142.