Teaching Emily Dickinson’s Poems for High School Students

Teacher’s Guide to Poems by Emily Dickinson


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


He sweeps with many colored staples.

I felt great. I had just taught an amazing lesson on annotating a poem. Finally, my students could write intelligent analysis in their poetry 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 cancelled my appointment. I had work to do. I had to create a list of teaching ideas for Emily Dickinson poems. Here’s what I came up with.

ELA Common Core Standards Covered

Teaching poems by Emily Dickinson covers the following ELA Common Core Standards.  This is for your administrator, not your kids.  Kids need student-friendly worded objectives.

  1. RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text
  2. RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  3. RL.9-10.10 By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range. By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
  4. L.9-10.5  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. 
  5. L.9-10.5a  Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.
  6. Common Core Writing Standard 1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  7. Common Core Writing Standard 2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Lesson Ideas for Emily Dickinson Poetry

“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.  Here are some lesson ideas.

  1. Before reading the poem, instruct students to draw death as a person.  Individualized white boards work well.
  2. After reading the poem, instruct students to draw Dickinson’s personified version of death.
  3. Create a Venn Diagram or other graphic organizer to compare the two versions of death. Write a sample on the board.
  4. 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.

  1. Begin class with a discussion of the new media–text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking things that teachers don’t understand.
  2. 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 instead of Happy Holidays. By the end of the week I had several teachers coming to my defense and an administration team scratching their heads).
  3. 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 tattle-tale e-mail address.


“Much Madness is divinest Sense” – Many consider Emily Dickinson a bit of a nut. Here’s her response.

  1. 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.
  2. Explain that 20 years ago, you would have been laughed at for such nonsense.
  3. Discuss historical figures thought to be insane–Galileo, Joan of Arc, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., for example.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Before reading the poem, instruct students to write a description of a sunset.
  2. Read the poem. Students will feel inadequate (as will teachers).
  3. Use this lesson plan on showing, not telling (coming soon).
  4. Instruct students to write a poem describing sunsets or any other natural phenomenon.


*A complete compilation of poems by Emily Dickinson can be found here or by doing a Google search. The title of Emily Dickinson poems are not written in title case; therefore, I have not written them in title case.

Teaching the Common Core Standards by Teaching Poetry Masters

Just because someone came up with a fancy set of standards doesn’t mean you can’t teach your favorite poets.

  1. Teaching the Poems of Emily Dickinson
  2. Teaching the Poems of Langston Hughes
  3. Teaching the Poems of Walt Whitman
  4. Teaching the Poems of Shel Silverstein
  5. Teaching the Poems of Carl Sandburg
  6. Teaching the Poems of Robert Frost