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A Teacher's Guide to Poems by Emily Dickinson

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/31/2014

Worried that all your students hate poetry? Well, that might be true but this guide to teaching Emily Dickinson may help change their mind.

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    I felt great. I had just taught an amazing lesson on annotating a poem. Finally, my students could write intelligent analysis in their poetry Emily Dickinson essays. My joy turned to horror as I read "this poem is awesome" 4,211 times. I whimpered as students mocked. Seconds before peppering the class with rusty finger nail clippers, I had an idea: maybe I should teach students how to actually analyze a poem using Emily Dickinson.

    I put the nail clippers to their proper use, called my manicurist, and canceled my appointment. I had work to do. I had to create a list of teacing ideas for Emily Dickinson poems. Here's what I came up with:

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    Intended For High School

    "Because I could not stop for Death"

    Dickinson personifies death as a civil coachman on a pleasant ride, picking up guests along the way. Dickinson's description of death differs from common depictions such as the Grim Reaper.

    Assignment Idea:

    • Before reading the poem, instruct students to draw death as a person (Here are some ideas for making this lesson more engaging).
    • After reading the poem, instruct students to draw Dickinson's personified version of death.
    • Create a Venn Diagram or other graphic organizer to compare the two versions of death. Write a sample on the board.
    • Instruct students to write an analysis paragraph (or essay for more advanced students) comparing the two.

    "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

    This is not a poem about lacking self esteem. It's a poem about wanting to be left alone.

    Assignment Idea:

    • Begin class with a discussion of the new media--text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking things that teachers don't understand.
    • Instruct your class to start a rumor about a fictional student (make sure the student is fictional and the rumor is harmless) and have class members text their friends, post it on their Myspace page, and talk about it at lunch. Observe how fast it gets around (Note: I once started a rumor that involved me nearly getting fired for wishing a student Merry Christmas. By the end of the week I had several teachers coming to my defense).
    • Read the poem and discuss how unprivate our world has become. For more advanced students, you may wish to discuss wire-tapping under the Bush administration or President Obama's Big Brotheresque Health Care tattle-tale, e-mail address.
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    Three More Poems

    "Much Madness is divinest Sense"

    Many consider Emily Dickinson a bit of a nut. Here's her response.

    Lesson Idea:

    • Pull out your cell phone. Acting as crazy as possible, laud the merits of a phone that can take a picture and send it to someone thousands of miles away. Explain that 20 years ago, you would have been laughed at for such nonsense.
    • Discuss historical figures thought to be insane--Galileo, Joan of Arc, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., for example. The point of the discussion should be to inspire class members to be wary of mediocrity and conformity.

    "A Bird came down the Walk"

    Dickinson poeticizes her observation of a bird through imagery and simile.

    Lesson Idea:

    • Instruct students to write a poetic description using similes and imagery of an every day scene.

    "She sweeps with many-colored brooms."

    Speaking of imagery--Dickinson uses personification and imagery to describe a sunset.

    Lesson Idea:

    • Before reading the poem, instruct students to write a description of a sunset.
    • Read the poem. Students will feel inadequate (as will teachers).
    • Use this lesson plan on showing, not telling.
    • Instruct students to write a poem describing sunsets or any other natural phenomenon.
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    Look at PoemHunter.com for the works of Emily Dickinson. The title of Emily Dickinson poems are not written in title case; therefore, I have not written them in title case.

    These poetry assignments can be interchanged and used with many other poets. Enjoy!

Teaching Famous Poets

These famous poems by famous poets are excellent for high school and middle school. Each list comes with lesson ideas and links to the actual poem.
  1. A Teacher's Guide to Poems by Langston Hughes
  2. A Teacher's Guide to Poems by Robert Frost
  3. A Teacher's Guide to Poems by Carl Sandburg
  4. Teaching Shel Silverstein Poems
  5. A Teacher's Guide to Poems by Emily Dickinson

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