179 Symbolism Within “Song of Myself” and America as a Whole (Lesson Plan for Whitman’s Text)

Abby Brown; Rosie Connell; and Colton Gaudette

Opening Move: Each student will re-read the first stanza, and briefly write down what themes they see, and which parts of the poem convey those themes.


Part Two: -> Gather the students back. -> Talk a bit about what they thought about the poems as a whole. -> Ask them all to list recurring symbols/objects that they saw throughout the poems. Write down this list on a document/board where everyone can see them. -> Do the same thing, but ask them about recurring themes they saw instead.


Part Three: -> Split them up into random groups (generally of 3-5 people each) Place each group in different spots in the room. -> Pass out the handouts to each group. -> Assign each group a symbol from the list. —> (If the list is bigger than the number of groups, quickly do a vote for the top few based on what the students want to do.) -> Have each group pick a theme that they feel is represented by their symbol. Remind them that they can pick a theme/symbol combo that may not be common for readers to see at first, as long as they can back it up with evidence. -> In their groups, task them with coming up with a provocative thesis based on how their symbol reflects their theme of choice. Have them write it down in the first box of their handouts. Give them about 15 minutes to do this.


Part Four: -> Once each group has finished, have the groups all rotate around the room once so that they can see another group’s handouts. -> Have each group read the theses to themselves, then have them discuss how thesis could relate to other aspects of America and/or American Literature. The discussion doesn’t have to be directly tied in with the whole thesis statement, just at least some aspects of it. Give them about 20 minutes to do this. —> Also have them write down highlights of their discussion in the second box on their handouts, whether that be textual evidence from other texts, interesting points, etc. -> Once each group is finished, finish the class with each of them sharing their given thesis and parts of their discussion, and encourage other groups to hop onto that discussion. Also encourage other groups to take notes on this larger class discussion.



Opening Move: This is used as a primer to get the students thinking about themes and symbols within this text. We only used the first stanza here because it’s simple and memorable enough just as an icebreaker.


Part Two: This is also just a way to get the class thinking about the text in a simple way, but now a class discussion starts. Now they can begin sharing general ideas with each other as a way to get everyone involved in further discussion, but also get them thinking about the text as a whole. Writing ideas on the board is also a good visual example to show the class’s progression of ideas.


Part Three: This group work is designed to expand upon the ideas they created by crafting a thesis. We stressed here that it should be a “provocative thesis” because this part should make everyone think about how an effective thesis is constructed through peer review and brainstorming. We think group work is highly effective when it comes to making a thesis based on how much input everyone can give.


Part Four: We thought that focusing on American literature as a whole can inspire students to think about drawing on other texts in their future assignments. Having them rotate has them think about another aspect of the text they may not have thought about before, so they can get an even wider sense of the text to examine. The discussion shows how much students already know about all sorts of American concepts through common symbols/themes we see in it’s literature.


Overall, we chose to focus on the symbols and themes of the whole text because Whitman filled it with plethora of topics and ideas from his time, and added a layer of poetry to it that allowed it to be read in a variety of different ways. We knew it could be discussed in multiple facets, but honing in on the symbols allowed for a unique and relatively accessible discussion in a classroom setting. Whitman encourages the readers to connect his text to most if not all aspects of America and American Literature, making this lesson a good starting point for a discussion about it in any way the instructor(s) sees fit.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Abby Brown; Rosie Connell; and Colton Gaudette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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