Teachers on Teaching

Below are comments from participants in the Museum’s 2007-2008 Faculty Humanities Workshop on Emily Dickinson abut their experiences with Dickinson in the classroom. Please share your experiences with us by emailing csdickinson[at]emilydickinsonmuseum.org. 

Primary Grades

  • The children enjoyed making herbariums and the fascicles. Because their fascicles were made by them and the poetry was also written by them it took on greater meaning and personal satisfaction. This entire unit interfaced nicely with our third grade garden and outdoor classroom activities. Emily enjoyed nature, children, and had a wonderful sense of humor. The 3rd grade children could see this through their 19th century eyes in 2008!
  • During my own unit planning, it quickly became apparent to me that I had to find a way to integrate the district social studies curriculum, the unit on Emily Dickinson, and the district’s new science unit on plants. There simply would not be enough time to teach all three as separate units. I have discovered that integration was a good choice. It was clear that the social studies unit and the Dickinson unit would fit together, but the ease with which I have been able to integrate the “New Plants” unit came as a pleasant surprise. The plants unit lends itself to integrating discussion and learning activities about Dickinson’s interest in the natural environment. For example, I recently displayed a picture of a page from Dickinson’s herbarium and had a discussion with the children about this careful collection of plant specimens. This has allowed the children to find a means of connecting with a historical figure through their own study of plants.
  • The personal connections that the children have made with Emily Dickinson have proven to be highly important to their understanding. After a discussion of the daguerreotype of Dickinson and the fact that it is the only picture of her, we discussed what they would choose as a picture of themselves if they could have only one taken in their lifetime. Admittedly, this is limited in scope as their lives only extend eight years, but they took the discussion seriously and then wrote about their “pictures.” The writing included descriptions of their attire, age at the time of the picture, and their surroundings. Clearly, the children thought carefully about what is important to them and how they want others to see them. After the writing assignment, the children drew their “pictures.”

Upper Elementary/Middle School

  • I loved teaching this unit on…! Initially, I envisioned this as a two week unit (four hours per week); however, as the interest of the students increased, I planned more activities to challenge their understanding of poetry and poets. Although it was difficult at first for students to interpret or dissect Emily’s poems, students improved considerably with a great deal of modeling. The creative interpretation of an ED poem took more class time than I had planned; students were so enthusiastic about the project! This unit easily took up six weeks.
  • I had the opportunity to work with the computer teacher at my school, who wanted the class to learn how to make pamphlets using the Publisher program. This allowed the students to continue practicing their analysis skills with poetry from various poets. The students also learned valuable research, note-taking, outlining, and organizational skills from this project.
  • My lessons successfully made connections between the students and a local historical figure. I was able to integrate language arts skills with the arts, history, the environment, nature and use of the computer. We made visits outside the classroom and went into the community. Other suggested field trips for students would be a visit to the ED house and the cemetery where ED is buried.
  • I wanted poetry to be part of the seventh grade curriculum all year, so I introduced Emily Dickinson poems throughout the year to inspire language play. By doing that, my students had already familiarized themselves with the genre by the time of the poetry unit itself, in April, and we were able to “take off” and enjoy the focus rather than spend so much time introducing the concept of poetry. All year, we talked about abstract and concrete image. We read a lot of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and before we went to the museum, the kids did some research on her life. They had a copy of the family tree, and they researched Emily Dickinson and her family and came up with some interesting observations and questions. We simply shared the information in class discussion. By the time we went to visit the Emily Dickinson museum and the archives at Amherst College, they knew quite a bit about Emily Dickinson and they were curious and interested.
  • The unit worked well for SPED reading students. Vocabulary and comprehension were exercised while awakening students to a great local poet and her life and work.
  • Time constraints were a problem. This could have easily turned into a two week unit as students were very receptive to the content.
  • Students became eager to learn more about this enigmatic woman. The more I shared with them, the more they wanted to know. The history buffs, in particular, really became excited by this unit.
  • I was able to include many curricular goals connected to my school’s Instructional Focus of literacy. Students read biographical articles, took notes on them, and applied this knowledge to help them understand Dickinson’s poem. The complex reading skills required for analyzing poetry added depth to our literacy goals. Reading and understanding Dickinson’s letters became another challenge. All along, we were writing journal responses and letters, as well.
  • The riddle poems were a great success! Students struggled to understand them on their own, but the Socratic discussion of the poem worked really well, and I could see the light bulbs go off as we worked through the different interpretations. As I refrained from giving my own ideas, more and more students ventured guesses and came to some agreement of Dickinson’s meaning.
  • I found that the students did require my guidance in understanding their individual poems. I need to include enough time with each of the six groups to guide them through the figurative language of the poem. In my actual lesson planning, I had students working at their own pace. When it came to teach them how to read the poem aloud, some groups hadn’t finished analyzing the poem’s meaning yet. I need to give them enough time to do that before they try to express that meaning with their voices. They found that looking up Dickinson’s words in the dictionary was a huge help in understanding her poems, though.
  • The letters to Dickinson were a fun and creative way to wrap up this unit, connecting knowledge of her life to the mystery of her poetry. This assignment also allowed me to incorporate letter writing technique into the lesson, and it appealed to the imaginative and creative writers. A couple of students wrote their letters in the form of poems to Emily.

High School

  • Emily Dickinson is relevant to high school students today. I think she would have been the quiet girl who dressed funny & didn’t do her homework but was very smart & would have an edge to her. I have a lot of girls like that in my Sophomore English classes.
  • You just know that the mind is working, but not on anything you are saying as a teacher. Many of the poems I chose were warmly received (especially by the girls) as they relate to problems with identity & not knowing where you stand in the world. There is that sense of insecurity you see in Dickinson’s poetry & you can also see it in teenagers.
  • Because many of the students in the alternative program are kinesthetic learners, and I had so much information to share, I chose to have stations where students searched for key information and completed tasks. I had a station on the Victorian Age where students created their own calling cards. I had one on Emily, the student, where students created “Recorded Items” or a list of infractions for our school, etc. The students were definitely engaged, and it gave them information about the poet from both primary and secondary sources. I liked that they were able to draw their own conclusions and connected to the poet ever before any sort of lecture on Dickinson. The literary analysis then I think was more successful.