Recently, I was talking to one of my pre-service secondary English teachers about her upcoming Transcendentalism Unit for student teaching. This student enjoyed learning about Transcendentalism in college, but was extremely nervous about teaching Transcendentalism to high school students, and rightly so! Transcendentalism is hard enough for them to learn to pronounce let alone understand.
Perhaps surprisingly though, I love teaching Transcendentalism in my secondary English American Literature course and AP English Language and Composition class…once I figured out how to make the shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered.
How Transcendentalism Is Usually Taught
Transcendentalism in both college and high school is often taught through lectures on the principles of the movement, student independent reading, and discussion (maybe). This style mostly relies on teacher-centered instruction and can pose challenges to students.
I know this because when I first started teaching (11th grade American literature), I taught Transcendentalism exactly how I was taught in college: lecture, independent reading, and discussion (sort of). It was a struggle for the students at best. I so wanted them to make connections and find meaning with Transcendental thought, but they couldn’t get past the language and the theoretical roadblocks.
So, I started from scratch with a backwards design approach to really tap into the outcome I was looking for (students being able to write an argumentative essay about Transcendentalism) and the learning opportunities to prepare them to excel on this assessment (learner-centered Transcendentalism activities). The change in student response was incredible! Not only were they able to write excellent argument essays on the topic, they even, dare I say, liked it!
Today, I’m sharing my favorite learner-centered activities. All of these activities and more can be found in my Transcendental Activities Bundle.
1. Transcendental Circles
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay “Nature” was inspired by his founding of and participation in “the Transcendental Club,” a group of philosophers who discussed Transcendentalism at over 30 meetings in three years. Using the Transcendental Club as my inspiration, I created a club-like activity for students to mimic these Transcendental influencers and learn about Transcendentalism. I call this activity Transcendental Circles.
For this activity, students take on one Transcendental role. You can create any role, but I like to choose roles that mean something for the Transcendental movement. Mine were the Intellectual, the Philosopher, the Dreamer, the Idealist, and the Poet. Each role corresponds to a topic related to the background on Transcendentalism. These topics can include the meaning of transcendental, key figures and their philosophies, the role of nature, the roots in Idealism, and the literary tradition.
Once students have completed their individual roles, they should meet with a group made up of all the roles imitating the Transcendental Clubs of the early 1800s. Each group member will share what they learned in their new role, and they’ll also record their insights in their “Transcendental Journal.”
This is an engaging way to learn about Transcendentalism and the fact that they’re actually meeting in a “club” helps them make a further connection to the movement. If you’d like my copy of the Transcendental Circles role and activity, check out my resource here. This is also part of my Transcendentalism Activities Bundle.
2. Emerson’s “Nature” in Nature Transcendentalism Activity
If you’re going to read “Nature,” it only makes sense to experience “Nature” in nature. Have students close read the passage about the transparent eye-ball and then take students outside to experience nature with all of their senses. Connect imagery to this experience by asking students to journal about what they touch, smell, taste, and hear.
But, what if you live in Pennsylvania, and this unit falls in February? *Asking for a friend* It’s simply the best if you can get outside, no matter the elements.
However, if this isn’t possible, or you want to supplement this activity with something you can give feedback on, you can always do a virtual hike at amazing places all around the world.
A fan-favorite is the Google Earth National Parks tour. These tours of 31 national parks are so realistic your students will have no trouble using their transparent eye-balls to connect their senses to nature. As an alternative or supplement, you could have students find their own image of nature and connect it to their feelings.
3. Thoreau’s Walden Simplicity Journal
Thoreau spent two years living in the woods and writing about his experience in what came to be known as Walden. Giving students the opportunity to connect to this experience is as easy as giving them a blank journal. Well, maybe not that easy! We can encourage students to take on Thoreau’s perspective through a series of close reading and virtual activities and then journal about their experiences.
Step 1: Learn about Thoreau’s Self-Reliance and Simple Living Transcendentalism Philosophy
To begin, you can show students this virtual tour of Walden Pond. This five-minute video gives a tour of Thoreau’s house, the pond, the surrounding area, and even background on Thoreau and his philosophies. It’s perfect as an introduction to the idea of living simply. This is a perfect video to connect to passages from Thoreau’s Walden.
If you’d really like your students to embrace the idea of living simply, you can have them play Walden, A Game. This exploratory narrative game has a free education version designed for a 15-30 minute independent or class co-play learning sessions for middle and high school students. The game begins in the summer of 1984 when Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, and the objective is to play slowly and deliberately learning to survive alone in the woods. This is a perfect way to teach students about self-reliance and simplicity.
Step 2: Explore the Simplicity Movement in Today’s World
Once they’ve had a chance to explore Thoreau’s philosophies, it’s great to connect to today’s world. They can find inspiration for simple, minimalistic living in today’s world from Pinterest or Google Search. They can create a mood board in a virtual journal for example. This is always fun to share as a class as students learn more about the influence of Thoreau’s philosophy on today’s world.
Step 3: Evaluate and Reflect on Simplicity in their Own Lives
Then, the final step is to make the connection to their own lives. This is a perfect place to ask students to evaluate their own simple (or not so simple) living. You can give them a rating scale on topics related to self-reliance and simplicity and then have them journal.
This is a great way to wrap up a unit, so that students can find the meaning from the past in today’s world and their own lives. These activities are part of my Walden resource.
More Information on Transcendentalism
I hope this article has inspired you to try a new Transcendental lens when teaching Transcendentalism. I’ve found that connecting that theme and purpose through high-engagement, reflective activities makes all the difference.
If you’re looking for structured activities to go along with these ideas, you can find this and more in my Transcendentalism Activities Bundle.
This unit pairs well with AP English Language and Composition argument essays. You can read about how to teach argumentative essays here.