8th Grade ELA : Unit #4 - Nature, Naturalism, and The Call of the Wild : Lesson #1

Three -ISM's and HDT

Objective: SWBAT begin to construct an understanding of the philosophical and social influences in nature writing.
Standards: RI.8.1 RI.8.2 RI.8.5 RI.8.10
Subject(s): English / Language Arts
60 minutes
1 Latin Roots Warm Up: ERR, FIRM - 10 minutes

This is our daily warm up, wherein students work with two or three Latin roots per day.  The resource that I use to get my roots is Perfection Learning's Everyday Words from Classic Origins.
Every day, when the students arrive, I have two Latin roots on the SmartBoard.  Their job is to generate as many words as they can that contain the roots, and they try to guess what the root means.  After I give them about five minutes, we share words and I tell them what the root means.

The students compile these daily activities in their class journals.  After every twelve roots, they take a test on the roots themselves and a set of words that contains them.

2 5-minute Freewrite - 10 minutes

To start the lesson off and get students thinking about nature and the wild, I show them a picture of Alaska and ask them to write whatever comes into their minds.

Some say cold, others say beautiful...eventually someone said that the landscape is beautiful, but dangerous.  This is a good "seed" for later, when we get into a discussion of naturalism.

3 Into the Wild - 5 minutes

To get this lesson to feel more relevant and pique the students' interest, I brought in my copy of Into the Wild and showed them a two-minute clip from the movie.

Basically, I explained to them (short version of) the story of Christopher McCandless, and explained that he had been inspired by many writers to seek an authentic life in the wilderness of Alaska.  (I also was careful to explain that he had died relatively soon after embarking on his adventure.)

This clip is nice, because it shows Chris (the actor playing him) reading a passage from Tolstoy and contemplating his own path to happiness.


This provides a nice transition to a discussion of the -isms and to Walden, since the book references Thoreau, as well.

4 Three -Isms - 10 minutes

Since my students are eighth-graders, heading to high school, I like to give them a little practice with note-taking.  My goal for them is to be able to listen to a lecture and/or view a slide or series of slides and take from those sources only what they need to understand the topic.

So, I gave a little mini-lecture on Transcendentalism, Realism and Naturalism.  The highlights are in the screencast.  What I want to do in this unit is to get the students to appreciate how two different lenses, such as Transcendentalism and Naturalism can influence and inform one's attitude toward nature.

This lecture led us in a related, but not completely connected discussion.  That is, "Are teenagers nature deprived?" I have done this topic before with an argument essay, and I may reintroduce it later in the unit, because my students were pretty interested in talking about it.

5 Excerpt from Walden - Close Reading - 30 minutes

Finally, the lesson culminates in a close reading of a short excerpt from Thoreau's Walden.  I read the excerpt aloud to them, clarify and define anything that they need (other than the highlighted words that I already pulled out, due to their obvious difficulty), then I ask them to put the excerpt into their own words.  They are allowed to consult with partners (quietly,) but -- strangely enough -- only a few kids did.

Close readings, for me, take a couple of different forms.  I like to have the students negotiate difficult texts relatively independently, and -- as I have said in previous lessons -- I like to give them tools, such as SOAPSTone and TPCASTT.  The main obstacle to eighth graders doing close reading is their tendency to claim that they already know and understand the piece, so why should they work on it some more?  Of course, we know that "knowing a piece" requires lots of readings, and thinking, and dedication to the task.  But, they resist.

After the students paraphrase the text, I review it by calling on people to "translate."  Then, I give students a few minutes to make adjustments and additions and to address the two questions on the bottom of the sheet (re: figurative language and a general question about why someone might take to the woods.)  

I grade the close readings for completeness and the student's dedication to represent the author's ideas.  It's a 1-5 scale.  [Interestingly enough, only about 5 out of 60 kids got a 5/5.]

Where's Walden?

While I was looking for some video for my lesson, I came across this great interview wherein the professor (at the end of the clip) argues why we should teach Walden.


His reasoning really resonates with me, because I feel like school should present alternatives to kids.  In other words, we should expose our students to a lot of different ways of seeing the world, and Thoreau's process of questioning the values of his time offers a good model.  It's not that everyone needs to go live in the woods to have a meaningful life.  However, the options for life are much wider and more varied than most 13 year olds realize.

Another reason I like to just give the students a tiny taste of Thoreau is that it's deep and it's difficult.  Even my very advanced students have to go slowly and thoughtfully through the text and really question the work and make meaning.  I believe that -- while we can't do work like this every day, students would become bored and less amenable to struggling with text -- there is really no classroom endeavor that is more worthy.