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.
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:
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:
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: