Henry David Thoreau
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Teaching Thoreau

Resources for Educators

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Preschoolers | Beginning Readers | Elementary Grades

Middle School (Grades 6-8)

High School

College and University

Note to Educators. Thoreau, one of America's most important and inspiring philosophers, can be tough to teach. It's not easy to dispel his stereotypes as a curmudgeon and hermit, or else a nature-gazing cloud-head, when you have only a few classes in which to present his works and thoughts.

Here are suggestions and resources for educators at every level.

Henry for Preschoolers, Beginning Readers, and Elementary Grades

...and try this
Christmas with the Thoreau Family

Here are some good starters.

First... D. B. Johnson, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 32 pp. Illustrated by the author. For preschool listeners and beginning readers. This award-winning story of two traveling friends is inspired by a passage in the first chapter of Walden. The pictorial style, rich in discussible details, is an exercise for young eyes and a good reason for re-reading. Grownups who know the Concord setting will enjoy such knowing touches as Ralph Waldo Emerson's modular bookcase and Henry's notched walking stick. ISBN 0395968674.


 Take a Hike with Henry
This multi-age-level site by two educators offers a rich menu of curriculum ideas, research tools, how-to's, treasure hunts, web links and many other resources that teachers will welcome. It features a rich selection of QuickTime videos and great material from Cornell's 19th-Century Periodicals collection and the Library of Congress.
TIP Start by clicking on "Teachers."
2. Next, the second book by D. B. Johnson, Henry Builds a Cabin. Henry's friends complain, "Your house is too small!" Henry declares that they aren't looking at the "real" house - the bean patch is his dining room, the sunny spot under the tree is his library, and the path descending to the lake is the grand staircase in his ballroom. The actual house is only "the room I wear when it rains."
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ISBN 0618132015


 Henry Builds a Cabin
Another multi-age-level site by the same two creative educators offers activity ideas, movies, and links to interesting articles. Activities include building a model Walden house, observing animal activities and seasonal changes, and much more. The site will have an interactive flash activity soon that will challenge students to build the cabin.

3. The third by D. B. Johnson, Henry Climbs a Mountain.

Civil disobedience, aiding the underground railroad, and Thoreau's famous night in jail are marvelously woven into a children´┐Żs tale. School Library Journal says:
"At the top of his imaginary mountain, he meets an unnamed, barefoot traveler. Although the stranger's comments indicate that he is an escaped slave seeking freedom, his fur is the same color as Henry's - they are, after all, both bears. Henry gives the traveler his shoes and best wishes, then returns barefoot to his cell. Despite dealing with complex themes, Johnson's text does a fine job of explaining the essential conflicts without oversimplifying them." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. ISBN: 0618269029

4. Henry David Thoreau, What befell at Mrs. Brooks's. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1974. 32 pp. Pictures by George A. Overlie. ISBN 0822502844. A comical entry in Thoreau's Journal is excerpted and illustrated for youngsters: Look for this out-of-print tale in a library - it's funny for reading and acting out, and for wondering what "opodeldoc" is. Or just download it now:
Download PDF
5. Laurie James, Outrageous Questions: Legacy of Bronson Alcott and America's One-Room Schools. NY: Golden Heritage Press, 1994. 102 pp. Illustrated by John Hartnett.
Thoreau's lifelong friend Bronson Alcott pioneered progressive education for young people. This introduction to history is especially wonderful for both teachers and children. ISBN 0944382061. Concord's Orchard House sells this and other materials for teachers and students, including Educational Packets (elementary or secondary).
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Thoreau in Middle School (Grades 6-8) and High School

For middle and high school students, Thoreau is a gateway toward a rich spectrum of topics in language arts and social studies -- the American literary "Renaissance," the Transcendentalists, environmental science and ethics, the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War... and key figures and episodes in African American history.

Also for ages 9-12 is My Contract with Henry (NY: Holiday House, 2003), by Robin Vaupel. "Convincingly develops conflicts that highlight the relevance of Thoreau's writing to modern adolescents. ...A boon to those who teach Thoreau to middle-school students... A book that fills the void between Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Thoreau's own texts." -Susie Carlisle, Thoreau Society Bulletin 246. ISBN: 0823417018

Middle School students will relate to Into the Deep Forest with Henry David Thoreau (NY: Clarion, 1995) by Jim Murphy, an award-winning author for young readers. (Basic info.) This retells Thoreau's last excursion to the Maine Woods, focusing on Henry's need for nature and solitude. Evocative illustrations by Kate Kiesler. ISBN 0395605229.

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Thoreau Boiled Down. For Thoreau in a nutshell - with very informative summary introductions - use the excellent "Spirit of Thoreau" paperback anthologies published by Houghton Mifflin (1999) and sponsored by the Thoreau Society. Each one, grouped by a theme, is edited and introduced by a leading expert. We particularly recommend the first three --

  • Elevating Ourselves: Henry David Thoreau on Mountains. Edited by J. Parker Huber.
  • Material Faith: Henry David Thoreau on Science. Edited by Laura Dassow Walls.
  • Uncommon Learning: Henry David Thoreau on Education. Edited by Martin Bickman.
  • Transcendentalism for Dummies? Well, not exactly - it's actually a CliffsNotes - but we earnestly recommend Leslie Perrin Wilson's excellent Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism (IDG Books, 2000) for its knowledgeable overview, scrupulous attention to detail, and rare empathy with Mr. T. and Mr. E., the giants of the transcendentalist movement. Read it before your students do! It's also readable / searchable online. Ms. Wilson is the Curator of Special Collections at the Concord (Mass.) Free Public Library. ISBN 076458619X.


    Interdisciplinary Thoreau. Thoreau is ideally suited as a basis for interdisciplinary curriculum because he belongs equally to Language Arts, Social Studies, and Natural Science...

    Strongly recommended: Resources for classroom teachers -- including Thoreau-related curricula originated by educators in the public systems -- are posted online by the Thoreau Institute, which sponsors summer workshops at Walden for teachers. A couple of these curricula are described below.

    • The Thoreau's Cabin Project is the creation of Bill Schechter, who teaches history at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High (not far from Walden Woods). His students, in 1997, built a full-size replica of the philosopher's Walden house as a one-semester elective. Schechter's rich curriculum, developed partly at the nearby Thoreau Insitute, offers lessons geared equally to vocational-track students and those with academic strengths.
    • Equally clever is Mr. Schechter's boildown called Thoreau's Journal Drippings, an ongoing collection of memorable sayings from Thoreau's enormous Journal.

    Educators focusing on the transcendental movement are well served by Michael F. Crim, A Teacher's Guide to Transcendentalism, desktop-published by the author, 1997. If you can find it, this loose-leaf volume contains a wealth of essential backgrounds, handouts, and references. There are several citations from it in Matt Feldman's informative 2003 Unitarian sermon, "Emerson and Transcendentalism."

    High School Curriculum Builder - "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" Two Indiana teachers designed this interdisciplinary activity for Grades 10-12. Explores civil disobedience and culminates in a mock trial of Thoreau.
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    Thoreau at the College & University Level

    If you're teaching at these levels, you don't need us. Still, here are our favorite guides for making Thoreau accessible and for teaching Thoreau using the Web.

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    Updated Feb. 20, 2010