206 Song of Myself: Transcendentalism, Imperialism, Feminism, and Religion Explored (Lesson Plan)

Ina Nakuci; Jack Armbruster; Michael Locatelli; and Ivy O'Brien


  1. Overview

In this lesson, students will explore the ideas of transcendentalism, imperialism, feminism, and faith through Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. They will analyze these concepts and discuss in small groups which one they believe connects best to their assigned excerpt from the poem. They will then write their responses on Padlet, and be ready to explain why they chose the theme for that padlet. From there, they will move onto the next Padlet until all groups have read and submitted a response to all four Padlets. We will then reconvene as a class and continue our discussion in order to build an understanding of the interconnectedness of each of these themes in “Song of Myself.”

  1. Learning Outcomes

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to understand how the themes of transcendentalism, imperialism, feminism and religion are displayed and connected in “Song of Myself.” They should start this lesson with a general understanding of what each of these terms mean, and by the end they should be able to discuss and explain how Whitman explores them, and connect them in Song of Myself. They should also be able to draw connections from the other texts we’ve read and discuss similarities between them.

  1. Order of Activities
  1. Opening Move: In the beginning of class, students will be asked to take 10 minutes to examine one of the terms listed (Imperialism, Feminism, Religion and Transcendentalism) and the role it plays in Walt Whitman’s poem ”.
    1. Students will then gather back into a group and have a group discussion on which term they chose for the whole poem and to defend why.
  2. Four Corners (with Padlet): Students will be randomly assigned into four groups. Each group will be assigned to one Quote Padlet link to start with. They will take 10 minutes to read the quote, assign which term is most MEANINGFULLY represented in the passage and post their explanation as to why in Padlet. Then groups will shift so that the group working on Quote 1 will shift to Quote 2, the group on Quote 2 will shift to Quote 3, etc., and repeat this process. Repeat until all four groups have read and commented on all four padlet pages.

Quote 1 Padlet

Quote 2 Padlet

Quote 3 Padlet

Quote 4 Padlet

  1. Afterwards, students will return into the main room and we will discuss each quote and what groups chose for each quote. From there, we will go into a discussion on the themes of the poem and how it connects to American Literature. Some possible discussion questions (if there’s time):
  • ❖ Why was the title of the poem changed during its four publications?
  1. First time – untitled, first of twelve untitled poems in Leaves of Grass (1855).
  2. Second time – “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” (1856).
  3. Third time – “Walt Whitman” (1860).
  4. Fourth time – “Song of Myself” (1881).
  • ❖ What are some of the contradictions that emerge from the poem? How do they resonate?
  • ❖ Whitman is largely considered a larger-than-life poet, but yet in “Song of Myself”, he had written lines such as “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.” (Section 31). How does Whitman call attention to small objects? What does this mean in relation to Whitman? What does a “leaf of grass” mean to him?”
  • ❖ How is this poem an example of American Literature? How is it not?
  • ❖ How this idea of inner and outer self ties back into being a defining characteristic of American Literature?
  1. Rationale of Activities
  • ❖ Opening Move: we (the teachers) thought that with introducing a new term and new text (particularly one that can be tricky as Song of Myself), we believed that by having the students write independently and then gathering together to discuss it, the students are not only learning the text from their own reading and analysis, but also from the students’ responses.
  • ❖ Four Corners (with Padlet): We wanted to take a modern approach with the Four Corners exercise and we were inspired by Abby’s previous activity while reading The Female American. With this activity, the students’ responses to the poem as a whole (in the Opening Move) may be different to what term the groups assign individual quotes. By acknowledging it, we can go into discussion on how the poem allows the students to have different interpretations and use those differences to understand the text as a whole.
  • ❖ Discussion Questions: These questions offer some extra insight in case we have exhausted our current discussion or decide to go deeper. Again, the complexity of this poem allows us to interpret it how we choose, and these questions help us understand the text in a deeper capacity outside of the actual activity.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Ina Nakuci; Jack Armbruster; Michael Locatelli; and Ivy O'Brien is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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