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Revisiting Walden Pond in 2003

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Voice of Experience

If your students were to head for a modern-day Walden Pond, what would they take with them? In this week's Voice of Experience essay, educator Kathleen Modenbach reflects on a list-making activity that helped her students grasp Thoreau's sacrifices and appreciate his writing. Included: Cross-curricular activities to extend the lessons of Walden Pond.

Make-up, cell phones, and frozen foods were some of the items students in my 11th-grade American Literature class listed when I asked them to name five items they'd take with them if they were about to set off to live for a year in the woods. Obviously, they weren't prepared to read Thoreau's Walden.

A FOCUS LESSON TO PREP STUDENTS FOR READING WALDEN

I was not convinced that my students would grasp the full intent and meaning of Thoreau's Walden without a little background, so I came up with an activity I thought might help them put Thoreau's work in perspective.

I began the lesson by sharing with students a brief Thoreau biography. I used a biography that was included in my students' anthology, but you could just as easily present an online biography such as this one from Biography.com.

Thoreau's Packing List

Following are the 12 items Thoreau took with him when he headed into the woods at Walden Pond in 1854.
* 1 axe
* 2 knives
* 1 fork
* 3 plates
* 1 cup
* 1 spoon
* a jug for oil
* a jug for molasses
* 1 lamp

Then I introduced to students a list of 12 basic items [see sidebar] Thoreau carried with him to Walden Pond. I wanted them to create their own lists of items they might take if they were setting out to live with nature for a long period of time. Despite being armed with Thoreau's list, those high-tech kids found the task of narrowing down their own lists of back-to-nature items to be a difficult one. Their responses were a mixed bag. Comfort and convenience items often appeared near the top of their lists.

Laughter is a plus in any lesson, and this activity brought no shortage of that. Besides cell phones, make-up, and frozen foods, some of the other "wilderness" items the students included were fans or air conditioners, pillows, a car, snack foods, bottled water, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soft drinks, and music. Since everyone named at least one odd item, the laughter wasn't at anyone's expense -- and the inclusion of those humorous items helped focus students' attention on the most appropriate items.

The next step in the lesson was to have each student indicate which of the five items on their individual lists was the most important one. Before letting them do that exercise, I focused their thinking by bringing up Thoreau's list again. We thought about the general headings his 12 items might be categorized under. The students concluded that Thoreau's list seemed to break down into three categories:

  • food items
  • items for heat and cooking
  • items related to shelter

With those categories in mind, the students were able to see the bigger picture and make wiser selections.

The next task was to discuss the items on their individual lists with an eye toward generating a single class list of five items. A lively discussion ensued and, eventually, they came up with a class list that reflected Thoreau's priorities. They narrowed their original responses to the following five items:

  • seeds for planting food
  • matches for heat and cooking
  • hunting and fishing equipment (nothing fancy)
  • eating, drinking, and cooking utensils (one of each, only)
  • a tool for building shelter
TIME TO READ

Finally, we were ready to read Walden. Our anthology included excerpts, but you might assign sections of an online version of Walden.

My students' anthology included only Sections 16, 19, and 23 of Chapter 2 and the Conclusion.)

The warm-up (or focus) activity had served its purpose. It had prepared students to read Thoreau's work with an underlying understanding of some of his beliefs. Now that the students better understood what Thoreau gave up to live in nature, perhaps they would find a deeper appreciation of his great experiment and his writing.

REFLECTING ON A MOST VERSATILE LESSON

Although my students did most elements of this activity on their own, the next time I do this lesson I might try something different: Perhaps I'll arrange students into small working groups to discuss their original lists. Each group could talk through and prioritize those lists. Then I could introduce Thoreau's list and challenge students to come to their own small-group conclusions about the categories of items he gathered. Finally, armed with those thoughts, students could work cooperatively within their groups to come to a consensus about the five most important items. Each group would then present their lists and their rationale to the class.

Whatever changes I make to the lesson, however, it is one I will surely repeat. Although I used it in my American Literature class, this versatile lesson involves so many areas of the curriculum, it could be included just as easily in history, social studies, or science classes. (See Walden Pond Across the Curriculum below.) And, because it is such an excellent lesson in perspective, this lesson might be used at many grade levels as well. Reading Walden can help ground high-tech kids in the realities faced by their ancestors.

Walden Pond Across the Curriculum

As I reflect on the lesson above, I see many ways in which Walden could be used to connect to other areas of the curriculum:

  • In history class, students might list items that pilgrims from Europe or early American pioneers brought with them on their journeys west. They could also identify concerns those early settlers might have faced in traveling to an unknown world, and make comparisons between those early explorers, Thoreau, and today's space pioneers.
  • In science class, students might research plants and animals that live in and around Walden Pond today and then compare their lists to the species that lived there in Thoreau's time. Have any species Thoreau wrote about become extinct? Has the area where Thoreau lived changed in other ways over the years? How has it changed? How might those changes have impacted nature?
  • In math class, students might graph their choices of "back to nature" items, or compute the distance in miles from Boston to Walden Pond. (How long would it take today to travel that distance? How long did it take in Thoreau's time?) Given some of the dimensions from Thoreau's 1846 survey of Walden Pond, students might create their own maps of the pond with map scales.
  • In language arts, after reading Walden, students could write a journal entry for a typical day of "getting back to nature" in 2003. They would need to include at least three of the five items from their lists in the journal entries they write.
  • In the computer lab, students might learn more about Thoreau and Walden Pond by exploring some of the links at the bottom of the Thoreau's Walden Web page. That page includes a link to Walden Pond Photos through history.

Kathleen Modenbach is an English teacher in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish Schools. She teaches at Northshore High School and writes for The Times Picayune in New Orleans.

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