On Teaching Thoreau
Thoreau Society Bulletin
Do the teachers among you ever feel that you can lead your students to Walden, but can’t make them read?
I’ve been asked to share what I learned about teaching Thoreau at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, where I was privileged to offer a course about the man and his writings for a decade (1998-2008). I won’t attempt to explain why Thoreau should be taught. That would be preaching to the choir. However, I can’t resist pointing out a paradoxical challenge that he himself created. He wrote a book so great, so canonical, by now so ingrained in American culture and identity that students may feel they know him without actually having read him. It’s much easier to get the gist of the book—to breathe it in, as it were—than actively to explore its genius. The work is on every short list of American classics. But how many Americans have read it? How many fewer have read Thoreau’s other writings?
By getting down to specifics, we may yet find the “hard bottom” of Thoreau studies in high school.
• What to Read, and When:
Any book or author can be taught to any grade level, if done in an age-appropriate way. How meaningfully the material can be taught is another question altogether. In an early incarnation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), Thoreau was relegated to the fourth grade curriculum frameworks. Apparently, elementary school pupils were expected to fill in the correct bubble demonstrating they knew there was once a man who lived in a little cabin by the shore of a pond. A start, I guess.
At Lincoln-Sudbury, I taught an elective course called “Meet Mr. Thoreau” for juniors and seniors, though one or two sophomores usually managed to sneak their way in. In my experience, the tenth graders had a much harder time reading Thoreau than the older students. Expecting sophomores to bull their way through the “Economy” chapter of Walden, to appreciate the complex structure of the book, to grasp classical allusion, and to successfully follow long and winding (albeit well-groomed) trails of Thoreauvian thought may not be realistic. The challenge might even frustrate them enough to turn them off Thoreau. In the Walden chapter “Reading,” Thoreau speaks of the enduring value of the classics, and praises books that make us stand on “tip-toe” to understand them. As it turned out, Thoreau wrote just such a book, but even on “tip-toes” younger students might still pull up a bit short.
Having said this, I am nevertheless aware than many required American literature courses are offered in the tenth grade. That being the case, summaries or targeted readings of passages or aphoristic lines from Walden might work best for sophomores. There is certainly no shortage of relevant topics in the book to interest them.
Now, inspired by a surprising reference to “ball games” I came across in Thoreau’s journal, I want to throw a curve ball. Actually, I don’t think it’s best to start any students off with Walden, for all the reasons mentioned and for another, as well. Reading and discussing the book as it deserves takes a generous slice of time. I used the book in an independent studies class—the sequel to “Meet Mr. Thoreau”—and found that even allocating an academic quarter to Walden required us to move at a brisk clip.
Instead, I preferred to introduce Thoreau through his essays. At a dollar a book, the Dover paper edition with its five essays provided an additional benefit: students were able to take their copies home and to mark them up. I found that essays like “Walking,” “Life Without Principle,” Civil Disobedience,” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” offered an excellent overview of Thoreau’s thought and a friendlier welcome to his writing than the daunting “Economy” chapter. Running to about twenty pages each, the essays also built a strong foundation for a later reading of Walden.
I liked using memoirs and novels in all of my history classes, but it was tough to counteract the CliffsNotes options for them on the Internet. I wanted to figure out a pedagogy that actively involved students and that encouraged them to struggle with Thoreau’s prose and ideas. The approach I settled on consisted of assigning pages to students and having them present them in class. After the presentation, their classmates could comment or express disagreement.
Through the presentations and the accompanying discussion, we first tried to get at what Thoreau was saying, line-by-line, though always making certain not to lose the main idea or argument. We’d then return once again to the text to discuss ideas or passages that had the most contemporary resonance. This never required great effort because Thoreau’s concerns are so stunningly relevant. Before we knew it, the road was open to wonderful discussions about environmentalism, our personal connections to nature, conscience, politics, religion, spirituality, law, violence, materialism, technological change, and so on. It reminded me of being told as a child that if we dug deeply enough, we would reach China. Thoreau dug so deeply, he reached us.
• Supporting curriculum:
Surely, every author can be taught creatively. Students can assume the identity of a Shakespearian character, write a new last chapter for a Faulkner novel, or beam Jane Eyre into the twenty-first century. Teaching Thoreau, however, offers unique possibilities for engaging students, which can, in turn, deepen their understanding of the man, his ideas, their world, and themselves. Most of these supporting activities will require them to rise from their chairs and leave the classroom. This should not be too surprising, for Thoreau himself tells us in “Notes on Fruits, “To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse, while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed, is absurd.” In the next sentence, he warns: “If we do not look out we shall find our fine schoolhouse standing in a cow yard at last.” I would add that these activities can be as much fun as they are enriching.
The overarching theme for all that follows could be summed up thus: go beyond discussion; do what Thoreau did; react and respond in the moment; then compare your responses to his. Through such means, you may start a conversation with Thoreau that crosses centuries.
The teacher should never lose sight of the multiple aspects of Thoreau the writer and the man, which lend themselves to a wide range of learning activities:
- Thoreau was an intellectual who could work with his hands.
At Lincoln-Sudbury, we applied to a foundation for funds to build a replica of Thoreau’s cabin. We completed this project in 1998. Students in the “Meet Mr. Thoreau” class have used the space ever since for “solos” to experience the solitude that the most famous Walden resident described. This was an expensive undertaking because we wanted to build the cabin the old-fashioned way, with big timbers and hand tools. The cost would have been dramatically reduced had used modern two-by-fours. But in practice, any kind of hut will do, even one made of cardboard. Imagination can overcome dire funding issues. And if cabin construction doesn’t suit your circumstances, there are always pencils to make. We had great fun doing this at Lincoln-Sudbury. It was wonderful to see college prep students using the machines in our wood shop. Many had never picked up a tool before. If the Thoreau family improved the pencil, so did we, with backscratcher pencils, flute pencils, and “earcils” coming off our production line. Reading that Thoreau made pencils is one thing; making your own is another. It draws you closer to the man.
- He was a writer.
If you live anywhere near Concord, take your students to the Concord Free Public Library, where they can develop a better understanding of Thoreau’s creative process by examining original manuscripts. If you live far from Concord, take advantage of online manuscript resources.
- He was an observer of nature and our greatest nature writer.
Like Thoreau, we must learn not just to look but to see. In their own neighborhoods, students can find the same sky, stars, rainbows, snowstorms, autumn leaves that Thoreau viewed and described. The same heaven that was under his feet is under theirs. Describe it. Compare the attempt with his. Also, take some time to check out the trees near the school. What are their names? Immerse yourself in the natural detail of your own locale.
- He lived for a time at Walden Pond.
Go there. Feel the peace. Watch the sun rise. Experience the Transcendental beauty of nature. Too far from Walden Pond? Then check out the Walden nearest you. As Thoreau emphasized, there are Waldens everywhere, although they go by many names. A terrarium or a single beautiful flower will do in a pinch. If you can’t get permission for a field trip, darken the classroom by turning off the lights. Have the students put their heads down. Play recordings of birds, frogs, and night sounds. No one can stop a field trip in the mind.
- He advocated the embrace of solitude and simplicity.
Urge the class to forgo shopping for two weeks. Or ask your students to spend three solitary hours, without friends or technology, and to report on the experience.
These are just a few ideas, each with many variations. None of them are contrivances or simulations. They offer real experiences that Thoreau knew well. If the responses to them differ across time and generations, so much the better for encouraging a dialogue between “equals” who shared similar experiences.
Once upon a time—as recently as the 1960s—a belief in the value of experiential learning prevailed. This belief was earlier a hallmark of a certain young Concord teacher who enjoyed taking his students on excursions through the meadows and woods of his native town. There is a place for classrooms in Thoreau courses, but also a time to leave them. Certainly, Henry David Thoreau had his own strong pedagogical preferences. As he wrote in “Wild Apples,” “So there is one thought for the field, another for the house. I would have my thoughts, like wild apples, to be food for walkers, and will not warrant them to be palatable, if tasted in the house.”