Teaching Transcendentalism can be challenging but oh-so rewarding, especially when you can connect Transcendental literature, beliefs, and values to modern (and ancient!) culture. At first, high schoolers might struggle with the movement’s abstract concepts and rigorous texts, but with some guided reading, fun activities, hands-on projects, and meaningful connections, you’ll be able to engage your students and quite possibly even change their lives!
If you are looking for creative Transcendentalism activities, ideas and lesson plans, then you are on the right trail! Your Transcendentalism unit plan is about to get a lot more enjoyable so let’s explore!
Ideas for Introducing Transcendentalism
What is Transcendentalism?
Transcendentalism is a philosophical and literary movement that came about in America during the 19th century (circa 1836). It was rooted in the ideas of individualism, self-reliance, and a deep connection with nature. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature, emphasizing personal intuition and spiritual experience over organized religion and societal norms. This movement, led by key figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, had a significant impact on American literature, philosophy, and social reform. Their ideas also influenced later movements such as environmentalism and individualist philosophies.
Transcendentalism Introduction Ideas
However, the key is to introduce Transcendentalism without a boring definition. You want students to get a feeling for it rather than a surface-level understanding of it.
Start by setting the stage for Transcendentalism. Don’t be afraid to bring your classroom to life by decorating your classroom with natural elements like leaves, branches, relaxing tabletop water fountains, and anything else that creates a calm mood. Students are never too old for a classroom transformation! Amp up the experience for students by playing a nature-themed ambiance video or a relaxing Lofi playlist at the start of class. Students will immediately be inspired by the calm, reflective mood of Transcendentalism.
Teaching Transcendentalism Stations
When teaching Transcendentalism, encourage students to explore this feeling further by rotating through the Transcendentalism Introduction Stations. Divide your class into groups and have them travel between these stations for 5-7 minutes. Remember–Transcendentalism is all about simplicity and reflection and these stations offer both! Here is a sample of the station ideas included in this Transcendentalism Unit.
The Transcendentalism BINGO board at Station 1 offers a sneak peek at many of the key elements of transcendentalism that will be covered in your unit. Students make connections to the themes of transcendentalism and will have the opportunity to discuss the relevance of these themes together. They may even examine examples of transcendentalism in pop culture.
Deep breathing and keeping a clear mind helped Transcendentalists make space for free thought. Station 4 offers students a chance to practice deep breathing and asks them to focus on their thoughts. Learning to identify and eliminate intrusive thoughts will help students in this unit and their own lives!
Thinking about nature and its impact on humans is another hallmark of Transcendentalism. At Station 6, students will consider specific natural elements. They will visualize these elements to identify what they may symbolize in Transcendentalist literature. Once they begin reading the unit texts, they will already have an understanding of these symbols to work from.
Teaching Transcendentalism Values, Principles, and Beliefs
The key values and beliefs of the American Transcendentalism movement are self-reliance, nonconformity, and insight through nature. Sometimes when teaching Transcendentalism, these values are broken down into 5 tenets of Transcendentalism which include:
- Confidence– The belief in oneself
- Nonconformity– The ability not to conform
- Self-Reliance– The belief in one’s ability to be self-sufficient
- Free Thought– The freedom to think outside of norms
- Insight Through Nature– The belief in nature as a teacher
However, in my humble opinion, a couple of these can be lumped into 3 core Transcendentalist values. After all, Thoreau teaches us to simplify, simplify, simplify! 😉 Nonconformity encompasses confidence in yourself, and self-reliance encompasses free thought. Therefore, a simplified version is to say that Transcendentalists value self-reliance, nonconformity, and insight through nature.
But no matter the details, to help students better understand Transcendentalism principles and apply them to their lives, students need to be given opportunities to think freely, explore these values, and maybe even do some lessons outside in nature! The Transcendentalism tracker booklet is the perfect tool to help achieve this goal!
The Transcendentalism tracker booklet is filled with engaging, thought-provoking activities. One activity found in the booklet is a nature journal. Teaching nature journaling is the perfect way to involve students in thinking and reflecting like the Transcendentalist writers. The given prompts encourage free thinking along with a place to collect pressed flowers, sketches, and other special elements.
The rest of the activities within the tracker are connected to the assignments completed in class. They help students preview texts and themes as well as apply their learning after the fact. Before starting the readings, students will rate their Transcendentalism traits using the Track Your Transcendentalism pages. They will revisit this activity at the end of the unit to reflect on their growth.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature Activities
The best text to start your Transcendentalism Unit with is “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not only does this essay incorporate all the Transcendentalist beliefs, but it’s also considered to be the Transcendentalism Club’s foundational document.
Using the teaching Transcendentalism tracker booklet as a guide will help students on their quest to self-reliance! Before reading “Nature”, begin with the biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Pauline Johnson, so students can get a feel for who these authors were. The “Nature” close reading encourages students to stop and consider important themes and ideas. They will summarize, make connections, compare topics, and more for a complete understanding of this challenging text. Students will go on a scavenger hunt through both texts to highlight evidence to support the major themes of these texts.
After reading, students will travel back to the tracker booklet to contemplate the stars in the same way the authors would have! The mood and tone activity allows students to explore colors and to create their own line of paint that reflects the themes of Transcendentalism. Selecting colors and naming each one will allow students to make connections to the texts.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Self-Reliance Activities
In a world where we are becoming more and more dependent on technology and other outside forces, students can benefit from learning strategies for self-reliance. Reading “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson allows students to see why self-reliance is so important.
Get students up and moving to introduce “Self-Reliance” using the Be Your Own Star activity. Students will stand up, make their body into the shape of a star and lean left or right in response to various prompts. This play on an anticipation guide will hook your readers and set them on the path to self-reliance.
Use the “Self-Reliance” close reading to help students work through this challenging text while also practicing the dreaded (but necessary!) test-taking strategies. Students will highlight and annotate the text for deeper understanding. Then, they can use their annotations to create a “found poem”, which is a poem made up of lines “found” in other places.
Connect back to the introduction stations by revisiting the article on self-trust. Bring this concept to life (literally!) for students by having them brainstorm places in their lives where they can begin to build their self-reliance. Have them create a garden by planting seeds in pots labeled with their desired areas of growth and watch their self-reliance flourish!
Henry David Thoreau Walden Excerpts
Walden Economy by Henry David Thoreau explores the cost of material goods to show the importance of living simply. Show a video of Thoreau’s cabin to help students visualize it before reading. While reading this excerpt, students will answer test prep and close reading questions. After reading, have students use an inflation calculator to figure out how much Thoreau lived on in today’s amount. Students can reflect on what it takes to live simply. Take this a step further by having students research local rental and mortgage rates to see if they would be able to live like Thoreau!
Where I Lived and What I Lived For
As humans, we should be constantly thinking about what we are living for. Transcendentalism would tell us to look within and in nature for the answer. Have students consider this question by thinking about their dream home and discussing where they would want to live and what they would like to live for. While reading Where I Lived and What I Lived for, complete the close reading questions. Students will consider what Thoreau lived for and can revisit their ideas based on what they take away from their reading.
Henry David Thoreau Civil Disobedience Activities
Use the annotation activity to guide students’ reading of Civil Disobedience. You may want to show this BBC video to hook students. After reading, watch a variety of informational videos showcasing various examples of civil disobedience. Use the Civil Disobedience Around the World activity to draw connections to modern examples.
Diverse Transcendentalism Lesson Plans
The Transcendentalist Club was not boys-only. In fact, one of the most important members was a feminist named Margaret Fuller who was invited to the table by Elizabeth Peabody, another fascinating female member.
But beyond adding female voices to your Transcendentalism Unit plan, think of ways you can incorporate diverse perspectives from ancient to modern times. Here are some ideas:
- Discuss how Transcendentalism beliefs were influenced by Hinduism and Confucianism. The Diversify Your Narrative organization offers a fantastic (free!) slideshow and lesson plan for this!
- Add Native American voices. It is also believed that Native American communities like the Penobscots influenced Thoreau’s relationship with nature. There is a rumor that Thoreau’s dying words were, “Moose. Indian,” which will take you down a rabbit hole if you are into famous last words! You can research this plus his relationship with Native Americans in this paper: Apostles of Wilderness: American Indians and Thoreau’s Theology of the Wild by Lydia Willsky-Ciollo (free article download here). You can also add Indigenous voices through poetry pairings like The Call of the Wild by Muskogee Creek poet Alexander Posey.
- Incorporate informational text. There are plenty of informational themes to tie into Transcendentalism lesson plans, but if you want to add diverse perspectives, consider an article like this: Meet the Black outdoorsy groups reclaiming the joys of nature. As students read, have them find key Transcendentalist values throughout.
Examples of Transcendentalism Today and in Pop Culture
If you are looking for relevant Transcendentalism activities, one of the most recognizable modern connections to Transcendentalism is tiny homes! Tiny homes are all about simple living and respect for nature. Many shows have been created to show off these small-scale houses.
Have students reflect on what they have learned from Emerson and Thoreau about the tenets of simplicity, happiness, and self-reliance using the Tiny House Transcendentalism handout. Show students an episode of a tiny house show such as Big Living in a Tiny House or Tiny House Nation and have them compare the values discussed in the show to the Transcendentalist writers’ values. Who knows–you might even convince a few students that tiny homes are the way to go!
After Reading Transcendentalism Ideas
To wrap up your teaching Transcendentalism unit, give students the chance to apply their learning and to really lean into the feeling of Transcendentalism.
Consider playing a podcast related to the themes in the unit for students while they use the Podcast Pairing handout to reflect and make connections. There are so many options for podcasts that relate to this unit, so you can explore one that feels right for your students. Some podcast pairing episodes include:
- Let’s Give It a Whirl from This is Love
- Prairie Warbler from This is Love. While there are timely themes in this episode about nonconformity and nature for everyone, Drew Lanham tells a story that uses the N-word, so this one is for mature audiences only.
- The Secret Lives of Trees from The Wild podcast
- An episode from the Going Wild podcast by PBS
This is also the perfect time for students to reflect on their stress levels, mindfulness, and more using the Transcendentalism tracker booklet activities. At this point, students can really start to apply Transcendental values to their own lives.
Transcendentalism Project Ideas
This unit includes essay prompts and a project that can go hand-in-hand or be used separately. The Transcendental Club Project offers students a chance to really show off what they have learned in a fun way.
Transcendentalist writers were part of the Transcendentalist Club where they were able to meet and discuss their ideas. Have students work together on the Transcendental Club Project. Groups will choose to create a Coffeehouse Club, a Classroom Club, or a Game Room Club. They will use what they learned in the unit to design and create materials for their club and to simulate discussions that may take place! They can truly live-out the Transcendentalist values!
If you want more project ideas, keep reading here: Transcendentalism Projects and Ideas for High School ELA
I hope this post has inspired you and made teaching Transcendentalism a little easier. If you would like to download my complete and editable Transcendentalism unit plan, you can find that here: Transcendentalism Activities and Unit Plan