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A Lesson in Whitman, an Exploration of Teaching

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Kendalyn Brown

Anne Dalke

Critical Feminist Studies

19 December 2008


A Lesson in Whitman, an Exploration of Teaching


A Child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is any more than he.

(“Song of Myself” 28).



Honestly, I am nervous about entering into this project at all because, as I have already explained, Walt Whitman’s poetry is, for me, beyond educational.  I think that I would also be scared to actually teach his work in a classroom for fear of having my feelings hurt.  If the children did not enjoy Whitman as much as I do and did not feel as invested as I feel, I would be quite up set.  But I also think that in teaching, you have to take some risks and put yourself out there everyday.  I hope that the students will be able to recognize my vulnerability and will not take advantage of it.  I hope that the passion that I feel for Whitman will come through in the way I plan to teach his work and that my attitude will be infectious, as Whitman’s poetry has always been for me.

This project, then, is an experiment for me in creativity with lesson planning.  With this project, I hope to find a way to expose my own style in lesson planning, but I also picture myself in front of a classroom, actually nervously teaching this material.  I hope that this type of lesson, if not this exact one, will be the type of material that I will be allowed to work with next year if I am accepted into the Teach for America corps.  Thus, I have tried to make my context and my lesson as fitting for this endeavor as possible at this point.

Context for Teaching Whitman:

            For this project, I have chosen to set my lesson plans in what I would consider a more realistic classroom than the one I proposed in my last paper.  Because I believe that Whitman could be read at any age, but should perhaps only be read once the reader is mature enough for him (this age depending on the person), I am going to hope that by their final year of high school, every student is ready to read Whitman and so I am gearing my lesson plans towards twelfth grade students.  I am going to set my lesson in a public, inner-city school in Philadelphia, which is inevitably poorly funded.  I will, however, assume that at this point in the year, I have been working with these students for months and have thus deemed myself comfortable to place Whitman before their scrupulous eyes.  I believe that I would only attempt to teach Whitman in a classroom in which I felt safe and respected.

With regards to the classroom, I am envisioning in a classroom of 30 seventeen and eighteen year olds.  In order to teach Whitman in any productive way, the actual course needs to be something more specific than just “English” or even “Literature.”  I would only attempt to teach Whitman’s work in a class where, during the earlier part of the school year, we have already read and studied some poetry.  Let us assume, then, for the purpose of this project, that I have been asked to teach a twelfth grade course on poetry.  Thus, the poems we have read before this lesson would not necessarily be in preparation for Whitman, as he would only a piece of the whole model for the course, but would act as a foundation for talking about poetry in general.  Over the course of the year, I would like to include in my new course an assortment of authors, including, but not limited to: Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, cummings, Dickinson, Eliot, Poe, Wordsworth, and Stein.  I am unsure of which works should act as his “predecessors,” but what I am doing by setting Whitman in the midst of these other poets in assuming that my students have some knowledge of poetry and we thus have a basis for studying Whitman in the first place.   

Lesson 1: Whitman’s “Context”:

Part One: Prose

In attempting to put together a context for Whitman, I have found no better preparation for his work than what he left for his readers.  I believe that allowing Whitman to provide his own context, I am teaching his material in a way that he would have preferred and perhaps even in the way he expected his work to be read, even though I doubt he anticipated seeing his work taught in a classroom.  By allowing Whitman speak for himself and his own work, I hope that I am setting a precedent that will allow for further exploration and discussion later in the lesson.  Before sending my students off to read the material I have provided, though, I would probably give them a brief outline of his life.  I would do this task in an attempt to demonstrate some amount of common ground between them and Whitman and thus I would probably include facts about his life that make him seem more approachable and more common than his own eloquence with words will allow him to do for himself.

In giving a brief description of a man, especially this man, I of course acknowledge the problems with presenting a “summary” of a life, but I feel that the benefits of performing this exercise would outnumber the issues that it may cause.  In my attempt to “summarize” his life, I would include that he was born in 1918 in Long Island, New York and that he attended a public school in Brooklyn.  During his early career, he worked with in the newspaper industry as both a printer and an editor and was also a school teacher.  He published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1955.  I would also include the fact that he lived through the United States Civil War (1861-5) and that he spent time on the battlefields because his brother was enlisted in the Union Army.  During his life, he worked and gave lectures in Philadelphia and in 1884 he moved to Camden, right across the river from my classroom.  He died in 1982 and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey (a fact that will become more important later in my lessons).[1]

            You asked in our conference whether or not I would share Whitman’s homosexual identification with my class.  At his point, I would have to say that I would not share this information, not just because of the homophobia I fear I would encounter with my students (which is not really something that I am prepared to combat by myself), but also because I would share his, or any other author’s, sexuality with them if he was heterosexual, since I would feel this to be implied.  By not sharing any author’s sexual orientation, I hope that I am making this a moot point with regard to literature.  Please realize, though, that this is not my preferred approach to teaching the context of literature and that I recognize the importance of location in setting up a work, but that I feel that by treating every author as having a “neutral” sexual orientation, I am preventing any author from being “outed.”

            From what Whitman has left his readers, in creating a context for his works, I would ask my students to come into class having read some of his prose as an introduction.  This first set of reading would include his “Prefatory Letter to the Reader,” in which he explains his thinking after his 1889 version of Leaves of Grass.  I have included this letter because I believe that it details quite clearly Whitman’s approach to poetry, as he states that,

For good or bad, plain or not-plain, I have held out and now concluded my utterance, entirely its own way; the main wonder being to me, of the foregoing 404 pages entire, amid their many faults and omissions, that (after looking over them leisurely and critically, as the last week, night and day,) they have adhered faithfully to, and carried out, for nearly 40 years, over many gaps, through thick and thin, peace and war, sickness and health, clouds and sunshine, my latent purposes, &c., even as measurably well and far as they do between these covers.

(“Prefatory Letter to the Reader,” Leaves of Grass 1889, 469)

I find this message to be a comforting way to begin reading Whitman because I think that he does not present his poetry as perfect, but instead attempts to highlight the length and difficulty of his process as he was finishing his work.  Alongside this letter, I would also include another piece of prose, his work entitled “Comments, 1855-1892.”  In his “Comments,” Whitman outlines his goal for his work, saying, “My poems when complete should be a unity, in the same sense that the earth is, or that the human body, (senses, soul, head, trunk, feet, blood, viscera, man-root, eyes, hair) or that a perfect musical composition is” (“Comments, 1855-1892,” 783).  I think that by this statement, along with the rest of his “Comments,” help to cover his connection that his poetry has not only to nature, by also the human body, two major themes that cannot be ignored when looking at Whitman’s poetry.  These two works of prose, though they do not cover his philosophy of poetry in its entirety, do a thorough job of covering the two major messages that I want for my students to have when they begin reading Whitman.   

            Having read this “prose context,” the discussion for that day’s class would be centered on what our expectations for his poetry are based solely on what he has given us in his prose.  With our background in poetry, we could talk about the general length of lines or whole poems and what kinds of literary devices we anticipate him implementing.  I would also like for my students to talk about to which of the poets we have previously read they believe Whitman will be most similar.  Of course, I would ask them to explain why they believe these statements and which parts of Whitman’s prose led them to their expectations.  I would end the class by explaining the two major ideas that I wanted for them to get out of reading his prose, if they have not already been pointed out by my students, and then I would pass out the reading for part two of our lesson on Whitman’s context.

Part Two: Poetry[2]

            For the next part of my lesson on context, that of the context Whitman provides in his poetry, I would have my students read the epigraph poem to Leaves of Grass, “Come, said my Soul,” as well as three other poems, “To You,” “To the Reader,” and “Song of Myself.”  Before I let the students leave my classroom with these two poems, I would first ask them to read these poems in a space that is safe and comfortable for them, a place that feels calm and private.  I think that when reading Whitman’s poetry, it is important for the reader to be fully involved in what he is saying and not to have distractions.  I would ask for my students to really attempt to be in a place where they could focus on their reading.

            I have chosen the four poems listed above as the source of my poetic context for Whitman because I believe that they demonstrate the elements similar to those that I highlighted in the prose context lesson.  First, “Come, said my Soul,” offers an almost autobiographical beginning to his work:

Come, said my Soul,

Such versus for my Body let me write, (for we are one,)

That should I after death invisibly return,

Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,

There to some group of mates the chants resuming,

(Tallying Earth’s soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)

Ever with pleas’d smile I may keep on,

Ever and ever yet the verses owning—as, first, I here and now,

Singing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,

Walt Whitman.

(“Come, said my Soul” 2)


I have chosen to start with poem mostly because Whitman not only made it the first poem in Leaves of Grass, but actually chose to set it apart from the rest by making it an epigraph.  Clearly, this poem was the first poem that he wanted to be read.  Also, by starting with this poem, I would like for my students to see how Whitman goes about claiming his poetry, literally incorporating himself into his literary work.  I would also like to discuss with my students why they believe Whitman chose to begin his body of work with this poem.  How does this poem match or move away from the expectations we set based upon his prose?

            I have chosen “To You” and “To the Reader” as the next two in this series because I really like the way in which Whitman addresses “you” and “the reader.”  With these two poems, I want to show how Whitman wanted to interact with people and his readers and how he modeled that behavior in his poetry.  Again, I would raise the question of how these two poems relate to our previous expectations.

The last poem for our “context” lesson is “Song of Myself,” which I have chosen because I believe that it encompasses a great deal of what Whitman wanted to reader to know about himself.  I also think that this poem, which I would call typical of Whitman’s work, shows how interrelated the poet and poem are.  “Song of Myself” also demonstrates how Whitman wanted his reader to be involved in his poetry and how he felt that the reader was essential to his work: “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me, / If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing…” (“Song of Myself” 40).  I major purpose in teaching the “context” for Whitman is getting the students to feel connected and invested in the reading they are doing, just as I believe Whitman believed he was doing with his poetry: “Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, / Therefore for thee the following chants.” (“Thou Reader” 14).  I hope that in showing how invested Whitman was in his readership, his readership will feel equally connected to the poet and will thus be more willing to move forward with Whitman’s work.

Lesson 2: Reading Whitman

For my next lesson on Whitman, I would like for my students to read several of his other poems based upon the “context” that we have established in our previous two lessons.  The reading for this lesson include: “One’s-Self I Sing,” “Poets to Come,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Spontaneous Me,” “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” “From Paumanok Starting I Fly Like a Bird,” “That Music Always Round Me,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “All is Truth,” and, finally, “Good-Bye My Fancy!”  Though in this lesson plan I will not explain my reasoning behind every poem I have chosen, I have selected these ten poems because I believe that collectively they do a pretty thorough job of covering the different types of poems that Whitman has in his repertoire.  Among them, I have included one of his many patriotic poems (“From Paumanok Starting I Fly Like a Bird”), though I have included only one because I do not believe his other types of poems to be more productive (an interesting) for the lessons I am attempting to set forward. 

In these ten poems, I have also included my two favorites, “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Spontaneous Me.”  I have chosen these poems not only because they are my favorites, but also because, in a way similar to “Song of Myself,” they seem very “typically” Whitman.  Also, I believe that in these two poems, Whitman is pushing furthest away from the norms of poetry and I really want to be able explore how my students see Whitman as outside the boundaries of other poets we have read or as fitting within what they have established as “norms” of poetry.

With “One’s-Self I Sing” and “Good-Bye My Fancy” I have included the two bookends of Leaves of Grass.  These two poems, along with “Come, said my Soul,” will help us to explore Whitman’s declaration that his “poems…should be a unity” and to figure out whether or not we believe him to have accomplished his ultimate goal.  We will also discuss why we believe he chose to begin and end his major work with the poems he did and what this lends to the work as a whole.  Four of the ten poems, “A Song of the Rolling Earth,” “That Music Always Round Me,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” and “All is Truth,” have been included mostly because they are enjoyable to read and they lend to portraying a more complete picture of Whitman’s work.  The final poem, “Poets to Come,” I have included as a tie in to my next lesson, which I will explain further in the third part of my plan. 

            As far as actually “Reading Whitman,” though I have already assigned for my students to read each of these poems on their own, I would also like to read them aloud as a class because I think that all poetry should be read out loud.  For Whitman, though, I would like to take my class outside to read.  Though perhaps there may be something said for “going into nature” to read Whitman, I would really be thankful for any outdoor space, even if it is only a playground as reading in our own setting will help to explain the next lesson.  Sitting in a circle, everybody would take turns reading part of the assignment, though I think that I would focus mostly on the two longer poems, “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Spontaneous Me” because these poems would both allow everyone to be able to read a part of the same poem.  We would then talk about the poems in terms of what we heard and not what we read, meaning that each individual could not discuss the section of the poem they read aloud.  In this way, we would discuss the oratory nature and qualities of Whitman’s poetry.

            In order to move our lesson about reading forward, I would ask each of them to tell the class about where they chose to read their assignment. Then, I would ask my students about what they felt their surroundings added to the experience of reading these poems and how it was different from reading them in a personal and private setting.  Finally, I would begin to explain how all of these ideas related to our next assignment: “Writing” Whitman.

Lesson 3: “Writing” Whitman 

            For the third lesson, I would ask my students to write a poem that is in some way inspired by those of Whitman.  This poem could borrow any aspect of Whitman, from his subject matter of body, soul, and nature, his style, his length, or just the feeling of his poetry.  The most important aspect of this assignment, as I would explain, is that their work be placed entirely in the “context” of their own lives.  Within the poem, I really want for my students to locate themselves in some way that they believe will be relatable for their readers.  Then, once they have completed their poems, I would ask them to write, in either prose or poetry, the “context” that they believe to be essential to understanding their Whitman-inspired poem.  Their “context” should not be an explanation of their poem, or a summary of what they have already written, but should instead elucidate something that the reader could not get from the poem if it was read alone.

            The next part of this lesson, after their poems and “contexts” have been written, would be to have them get into small groups, probably 10 groups of 3, and each read their poems aloud.  Next, they would each explain how their poems were inspired by Whitman’s work.  Then, they would exchange their written “contexts” to let the other members of their groups read.  As a final part of this exercise, they would each explain how they believe that their written “contexts” added to their readers’ understanding of their poem.

            The next assignment for “Writing” Whitman would be to take their “contexts” and either combine their two poems or takes what they have written in their prose “context” and somehow incorporate it into their original poem.  In doing so, they will have made a more concise and productive poem.  I will then have them each read their poems aloud to the whole class and then see if the class can figure out which part was the original poem and which part was the added “context.”             

This lesson is really about getting the students to think about writing poetry and finding their own voice outside the world of prose.  I want for their poems to be based around their own personal experiences, but I still want for them to consider their readers.  By then allowing them to go back and add context through either another poem or a piece of prose, I hope that they will gain some understanding about placing “context” within their work to make their thoughts clearer for their reader.  I hope that the exercise of writing out their poems and “contexts” will help them to be appreciative of Whitman’s work and to be able to recognize the power of his poetry.  Hopefully, the process of combining their poems with its context will help demonstrate how to effectively incorporate context into their written works.

Lesson 4: Re-Reading Whitman:

This final lesson is a re-cap of what we have done in the previous three lessons and involves the students re-reading all of Whitman’s poems with the new “context” they have gained through their own experiences with writing poetry.  Basically, I would like to see what new insights the past exercises have brought my students with regards to how Whitman goes about accomplishing his ultimate goal of “unity.”  This lesson would take the form of a discussion in which I would ask the students how they believe their process of writing would have been different or similar to that of Whitman.  I really want for them to explore how the process of identification and context can help a work to be more powerful.  Or maybe, they will conclude, it does not.  I am interested on what they have learned from the process and what they will take away that I can then apply for future lesson plans.


            This project, an attempt to create a map of how to help others learn, has been quite a productive learning experience for me.  Though I cannot be sure how successful my plans would be if actualized, what I would like to discuss here is Whitman’s thought that I have used as my epigraph for this project and the way in which this idea has and will continue to affect my planning and teaching.  In this quote from “Song of Myself,” Whitman, himself a school teacher, describes how he is just as ignorant of the world as any child and thus is unsure of how to explain anything to the questioning child.  This feeling of ignorance is one that I am currently experiencing in my pursuit of teaching.  At Bryn Mawr, we are taught to be confident in our knowledge.  But perhaps Whitman’s thought can expand on this confidence with a willingness to admit ignorance.

I would like to apply this idea to my lesson plan by acknowledging that as I execute this plan and learn from my students, I would be constantly adapting and transforming my initial plan to fit the more specific needs of my students.  As a teacher, I would be learning just as much from my students as I am teaching them and I want to acknowledge the pricelessness of this experience.  I hope that, like Whitman, I do not forget that I will always have everything to learn.    

[1] All biographical information was taken from The Norton Anthology of Leaves of Grass, Ed. Michael Moon (New York: Norton and Company, 2002).

[2] Though I may speak generally about Whitman’s body of work from this point on, I am using Leaves of Grass as my basis for any of generalizations, as this is the only work of Whitman’s that I have read.  Thus, all of the poetic selections I have made for the purpose of this project come from Leaves of Grass and do not include works published outside the body of this text.