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Teaching Walt Whitman: Summary and Lesson Ideas

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Teaching Walt Whitman doesn't have to be difficult. This summary of Walt Whitman's most famous poems with lessons should help.

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    Teaching Walt Whitman

    This lesson on Walt Whitman involves a internet research. Take students to the school's computer lab and have them do the following:

    1. Create a Timeline with at least 10 significant events from Whitman's life.
    2. Write a brief description of Whitman's admiration for President Lincoln.
    3. Copy down five inspirational quotes from Whitman. Choose the one you like the most and analyze it.
    4. Choose a poem by Whitman and annotate it.
    5. Choose five Walt Whitman websites and create a works cited page.

    More Lesson Ideas

    1. Research Walt Whitman Quotes and create a bumper sticker.
    2. Research Walt Whitman Quotes and create t-shirts covered with quotes.
    3. Conduct a poetry reading in your class. The lyric nature of Whitman's poetry allows for lusty readings.
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    "O Captain! My Captain!"

    Abraham-Lincoln-Seated 

    Poem: "O Captain! My Captain!" - Whitman pays tribute to President Lincoln.

    Brief Analysis: "O Captain! My Captain!" is a lyric poem (a poem that attempts to express a strong feeling). Whitman uses the following poetic devices to express his grief at the death of Abraham Lincoln:

    1. apostrophe - the poem's speaker addresses a dead captain (Lincoln) in the style of an ode.
    2. repetition - phrases such as "heart! heart! heart!" and the repeating of "fallen cold and dead" emphasize the poet's grief.
    3. word choice - even in the lines that describe the victory celebration, the use of doleful phrases cast a gloomy shadow.
    4. extended metaphor - the poem is an extended metaphor with Lincoln as the captain and father, a term which deepens the reader's sadness.

    Lesson Idea:

    1. Provide the definition of a lyric poem and discuss what feelings the poem's speaker attempts to express
    2. Define apostrophe, repetition, metaphor, ode, or any other poetic device students may not understand.
    3. Discuss how the poet expresses these feelings by creating a chart: (1) in column 1, list the poetic devices Whitman uses to create an effect; (2) in column 2, provide specific examples from the poem.
    4. Use the chart to write a poem analysis. Here's instructions on how to write a poem analysis with an example.
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    "I Hear America Singing"

    Walt Whitman - I Hear America Singing (public domain) 

    Poem: "I Hear America Singing" - Whitman pays tribute to the people who make America great--its workers.

    Brief Analysis - Singing is a metaphor for the goods and services produced by American workers. Whether you consider it a Marxist cry for the workers of the world to unite or a celebration of the Capitalistic notion that each man's work is his own is open to interpretaion (I lean to the latter). America is an example of synechdoche, with the whole representing the parts.

    Lesson Idea:Worker 

    1. Discuss Whitman's description of the different workers in the poem.
    2. Create a poster: (1) rewrite the poem, substituting symbols or pictures for particular words; or (2) rewrite the poem and adorn the poster with pictures and symbols of workers.
    3. Rewrite the poem, imitating Whitman's style, but including different professions, professions that perhaps didn't exist in the latter half of the 19th-century. This would also be a good opportunity for parody.
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    Brief Description of Other Famous Walt Whitman Poems

    1. "Song of Myself" - As the name implies, Whitman celebrates himself. It is also a celebration of the human body, spirit, and achievement and a celebration of the individual.
    2. "Beat! Beat! Drums!" - The poem's rhythm mirrors that of drums urging an army to battle.
    3. "Miracles" - Everything is a miracle, according to this lyric poem.
    4. "There was a Child Went Forth" - Whitman philosophizes on how the external world shapes what we become.
    5. "On the Beach at Night" - A father and child observe the cycles of nature on the beach at night.
    6. "I Sing the Body Electric" - Whitman truly enjoyed his body.

    These poems in their entirety can be found here.

    Walt Whitman 

Teaching Poetic Devices

Teaching poetic devices enhances poetic enjoyment, improves critical thinking ability, and makes you sound really smart.
  1. Teacher Tips for Explaining Sound Devices in Poetry
  2. Teacher Tips for Sonnets
  3. Figurative Language Lesson Plan
  4. Poetry Lesson Plans: Speed Poetry Analysis
  5. Teaching Walt Whitman: Summary and Lesson Ideas