Because Emily Dickinson’s life and work are intimately connected, introducing the person behind the poems to students can be a powerful way to make connections.
However, students also need to understand that Dickinson’s poems should not be read as autobiography. Poetry may be informed by, and is often a reflection on, personal experience, but it should not be read as a diary. Educators should keep this in mind as they talk with their students about Dickinson and her work.
Here are some ideas for introducing Dickinson’s biography:
- Examine Dickinson’s Family Tree (Link needed) and A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life (Link Needed). Make a chart of what the class knows about Emily Dickinson and what the class would like to know.
- Read aloud or have students read silently an age-appropriate biography about Emily Dickinson. Possibilities include Emily Dickinson: American Poet by Carol Greene (appropriate for upper elementary) and Emily Dickinson by Connie Ann Kirk (secondary).
- Read and discuss several Dickinson letters or excerpts from letters. What do these letters reveal about Emily Dickinson’s life and personality?
- View and analyze a biographical video or videos on Dickinson’s life and times. Good ones to begin with are The Poet in Her Bedroom (2008), Seeing New Englandly (2010), and Loaded Gun: Life, Death, and Dickinson (2002), all of which are most appropriate for middle and high school and are available from the Museum’s shop (Link Needed).
- Discuss how the students’ lives are similar to and different from Dickinson’s. How typical do they think her life was for the times? How much is it alike or unlike their own today?
- Introduce students to Dickinson’s daily life by baking her gingerbread, doing a project related to plants, or writing a poem.