A (Transcendentalist) Walk in the Woods – Lesson Plan

Ecology Lesson Plan – A (Transcendentalist) Walk in the Woods [1]

Ecology and Tree Appreciation for grades 7 to 10, key stage 3 and 4, (ages 11 to 15). [2]


Students will be exposed to Thoreau’s musings in Walden and his philosophy regarding the beauty of a simple life enjoyed in conjunction with the natural world, and with little regarding for material possessions. They will not only gain an appreciation for his literary skills, but also attempt to apply Thoreau’s theories (at least in part) to their own lives.


(Days One-Two)

“I can open Thoreau anywhere and read over and over a single sentence, about the road between Haverhill and Penacook, or how oak seedlings are best found in a pine wood, and in that sentence is the fragrance of a life lived.” – Mike Price [3]


Supplies Needed

Reading handouts (“What is Transcendentalism?”, “Concord in the Time of the Transcendentalists,” “Thoreau in Depth”)

Access to computer, projector and screen, white board and markers.


In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond (Concord, Massachusetts) for two years, during which time he experimented with simple living. His accounts of day-to-day experiences and philosophies regarding the properties of a valuable life are recorded in Walden (also known as Life in the Woods), which was published in approximately 300 pages in 1845. [4]

Introduction to Thoreau – Background Reading (20 min.):

Break students into groups to review the following handouts and create their own outlines regarding Thoreau’s background (instruct students to diligently document the information, as their outlines will be available for use on an in-class quiz).

Introduction to Thoreau (Continued) – Videos (45 min.):

Why Every Student in America Should Read Walden Pond – This three minute interview clip with Mark Edmundson (professor, University of Virginia), gives an answer to the question “why should I care about Walden?” [5]

Great Books: Walden is an introductory film that provides context for Thoreau’s experiment in sustainable living and a framework for understanding the symbolism prevalent in Walden and applicable to other transcendentalist texts. [6]

Wrap-Up (15 min.):

Students will write down five key points from the videos and regroup with their reading groups to compare their notes. After checking for accuracy, each individual student will compile an aggregate list of each unique fact identified by the group, which will be utilized in conjunction with the aforementioned outlines in an in-class quiz the following day.


Respond to the following prompt with a three page mini-essay (be prepared to defend any arguments referenced therein):

“What do you consider to be essential in your life? In other words, what items, people or intangible things do you need on a daily basis to survive?” Identify at least three items and explain why each is necessary.



Photo Credit

An Exploration of the Essentials

(Days Three- Four)

Supplies Needed

Excerpts or audio recordings[7] of Thoreau excerpts[8].

Students’ typed responses from prior assignment.

Guiding questions for discussion.


Opening activity (10 min.):

Hand out in class quiz reviewing information covered in prior class’ readings and introductory videos. Students must work independently to complete the short quiz within the allotted time, but may utilize the outline and key points sheets created in prior class.

Activity 1 (10-15 min.):

Students will break up into groups to discuss their responses to the assignment prompt, debating amongst themselves the qualities that the group’s essentials share (i.e., companionship, security, entertainment). A brief class discussion will follow to review the class’ collective conclusions.

Activity 2 (5-10 min.):

Review metaphors and similes handout for key figurative language.[9]

Activity 3 (40 min.):

A review of relevant Walden excerpts. Students will read trogether a section of “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” with special focus on Thoreau’s reason for going to Walden Pond. Students will focus on the following key questions[10]:

1. What does it mean to live deliberately?

2. What do you think Thoreau meant by “the essential facts of life” and why?

3. What does Thoreau mean when he says “and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”?

4. What is resignation?

5. What does Thoreau mean by the following, and are they metaphors, similes, etc.? How do these phrases help to illustrate the writer’s point?

a. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

b. To live sturdily and Spartan-like

c. To cut a broad swath and shave close

d. To drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms

e. We live meanly like ants.


Create a detailed journal of all hour-by-hour activities of your day. Jot down all important responsibilities and more minor happenings, from homework assignments to sports commitments and texting, internet use, etc. .

Pare Life Down

(Days Five-Six)

Materials needed:

Students’ daily journals.

Questions for opening activity[11].

Copies of Walden or relevant excerpts.

Introduction (15 min.):

Pull out your journal entries detailing how you spent your time yesterday. Look at the activities therein and consider the following: 1) Is this an accurate representation of a typical day and use of your time? 2) What did you spend most of your time doing?, 3) What activity brought you the most joy?, 4) …the least joy?, 5) What is one event you could eliminate from your daily schedule in order to create more free time? What could you do with this time? What would be lost?

Discuss with the class which activities were identified that could be detracting from productivity, happiness or fulfillment. Make a list of these activities and keep them up on the white board for the remainder of the unit, under the heading “details that fritter our lives away”.

Activity 1 (30 min.):

Read “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” with an eye for Thoreau’s philosophy on simplicity.

Activity 2 (25 min): Brainstorm

In groups apply the idea of the railroad to today’s society. If Thoreau were alive today, what aspects of society would he say “ride” (control) us as a collective group? Why? Consider what would be lost and gained by not having this aspect of society.


Continue journaling on the hour. Also, review the passage “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” and highlight the similes and metaphors Thoreau employs. Choose one similar or metaphor and use a handout provided to reflect how Thoreau’s point is advanced by the figurative language.[12]

Experience Nature

(Days Seven-Eight)

Materials needed:

Students’ daily journals.

A place outdoors for quiet observation.

Copies of “Spring” and “The Pond in Winter”

Slips of paper containing Thoreau quote.

Opening Activity (15 min.):

Students should write a journal entry reflecting on their relationship and interaction with nature. Prompt questions may include:

  • Do you typically observe nature when you are in it?
  • If so, what things do you usually notice?
  • If not, why not?
  • Do you have any memories of specific observations in nature? Why do you think these memories did or did not stand out to you?

Nature Walk (40 min):

The nature walk should take place in any available outdoor space close to the school, preferably a wooded area with trees and room for students to have their own spaces for reflection.

Students should be instructed to maintain silence throughout the walk. Anyone who is not silent must be excused from the activity. Personal space should be respected and encouraged, as interaction between students is not ideal. Provide each student with a fortune-sized slip of paper containing the following quote from Thoreau (for consideration as the walk begins):

“I am eager to report the glory of the universe.” – Henry Thoreau [13]



Explore the designated natural area and reflect upon what you see around you, how the surroundings make you feel, what specific observations stand out to you, and what emotions you are feeling. Pictures, poems, thoughts or more structured writing are acceptable. All musings should be recorded in the journal.


Type a one-page entry reflecting on the experience of the nature walk, employing at least one metaphor and one simile. The entry should incorporate not only observations but also reactions to the walk. Students should also read excerpts of “The Pond In Winter” and “Spring”. [14]

Wrap Up and Final Thoughts

(Day Nine)

Opening Activity:

Ask students to “report the glory of the universe” as they experienced it on their nature walk. Ask students to consider the elements of the natural experience that give rise to different emotions than those experienced in day-to-day activities.


Considering what the students have learned about Thoreau and read in his accounts of his time at Walden Pond, ask students to discuss whether Thoreau’s experiment accomplished the goals he set forth in chapter two of Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. Walden  – “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” [15]


What aspects of Thoreau’s experience would you like to explore yourself? What are the merits of Thoreau’s transcendentalist theories? What are the shortcomings? Does the natural world play a critical or nonessential role in cultivating human happiness, contentment, or purpose?


[1] Lesson plan adopted from “Approaching Walden,” a high school lesson plan developed by John White, available at https://www.walden.org/documents/file/cu%20-%20john%20white.pdf.

[2] For an introduction to Henry David Thoreau, see Thoreau Reader at http://thoreau.eserver.org/brief.html.

[3] Id.

[4] See http://teachersites.schoolworld.com/webpages/CBoone/files/g11c04_walden.ppt for additional background information, including interactive PowerPoint presentation detailing terms of art utilized in Thoreau and Emerson’s works (designed for younger audiences, grades 5-7).

[5] YouTube video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TfhwmU6sFo.

[6] Free YouTube versions of the video available in part one, part two, and part three.

[7] Audio recordings available on YouTube. See, for example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTVLXLyGQJM (Chapter One) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ26iRHeREo (Chapter Two).

[8] For example, utilize excerpts from Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience, Prentice Hall (Attachment B to John White lesson, referenced in n.1 above).

[9] See supra, n.1, at Attachment A.

[10] All key questions referenced in supra, n.1 at Attachment C.

[11] See supra, n.1 at Attachment D for opening questions.

[12] See id. at Attachment E for metaphor assignment worksheet.

[13] See “A Brief Introduction to the Works of Henry David Thoreau” at http://thoreau.eserver.org/brief.html.

[14] See id. at Attachments F and G.

[15] See http://worldwidewaldens.squarespace.com/read-thoreau-went-to-woods/.

Thanks to ForestNation Ambassador Casey Ernstes for this lesson plan

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