Sunday, January 9, 2011

An introduction to transcendentalism

In my years as a public school English teacher I've found that one particular piece of American Lit. curriculum simultaneously excites and terrifies most educators: transcendentalism.

We're talking about Emerson and Thoreau here- two prominent contributors to American thought and philosophy. If you ask me, that's a lot to present to kids between novels, poetry, grammar lessons, and the ever-increasing standardized test prep. In fact, when I think back to my own high school days I'm pretty sure I walked away from my teacher's presentation of "Self Reliance" and "Civil Disobedience" with little more than the idea that these guys must have been the first hippies and would have gotten along great with my aunt and uncle who still rocked the tie-dye 'Dead shirts. In truth, I was probably more interested in "transcending" my social status so that the cute girl in the front of the class would notice me. It wasn't really until I was in college, really challenging myself for the first time, that I discovered the value of the social-political-psychological movement known as transcendentalism.

Which brings me back to today. How do I do this content justice? How do I present this complicated material in a manner which is accessible for a group of teenagers at strikingly different ability levels? -If you can relate, I present to you the following: John Porcellino's Thoreau at Walden.

Published by the truly outstanding Center for Cartoon Studies, this adaption of arguably Thoreau's greatest work is excerpted out of order to create a truly brilliant sequential narrative that highlights the philosopher's solitary year while complimenting the unique style of Thoreau's prose.

The artist, John Porcellino, is a master illustrator with a powerful minimalist style, mirroring in a sense the minimalist philosophy of H.D.T. -and that is exactly why I use this particular text as my introduction to this philosophical movement.

While purists may argue that starting with the work of the "student" (Thoreau), and not the "teacher" (Emerson) is in itself an affront on the study of this movement, my goal as a high school teacher is to expose my students to the major theoretical underpinnings of the movement, not to give a chronological survey course, and for my money, "Walden" screams "transcendental" like no other.

I usually "go elementary" on my high-schoolers and read selected portions of this book (and show them the niffty pictures) while we sit on the floor in a circle. (In my heart I think Henry David would appreciate us getting out of our factory made plastic chairs and skipping the multiple copies of the book for a shared reading experience.)

As I read to them, I ask my students to consider the intent of the artist in conveying the thoughts of the author. The beauty of this book is that almost every panel provides an opportunity to relate the seemingly simple, yet rhetorically complex illustrations to Thoreau's eloquent writing. When done right, and with ample time for discussion, students walk away from this reading with an understanding of transcendentalism's basic tenants concerning our connection to the natural world, and abhorrence for industrial society, and the ever-present goal of attaining a more simple life.

As a follow-up activity, I have my students mimic Porcellino's style (which, by the way, is much harder than it would seem) to construct mini-comics over other selected portions of the aforementioned works by Emerson and Thoreau.

Thoreau at Walden is an excellent scaffolding text for any teacher seeking to demystify the transcendental movement for their students.

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