Walt Whitman Teacher’s Guide: Walt Whitman Poems, Lesson Plans, and Activities

Teacher’s Guide to Poems by Walt Whitman

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

Beat!  Beat!  Poetry Lesson Plans

I felt great. I had just taught an amazing lesson on annotating poems. Students gave me fist-bumps as they walked out the door. Finally, they would be writing intelligent analysis in their poetry essays

My joy turned to horror as I read “This poem was neato” 2,453 times. I cried, as stunned students snickered at my suffering. Seconds before peppering the class with leftover drumsticks from Thanksgiving dinner, I had an idea: maybe I should come up with a list of poems by Walt Whitman with Walt Whitman teaching activities instead. I put the drumsticks away, called my personal trainer, and cancelled my free consultation.

I had work to do (and drumsticks to eat). I had to create a list of poems by Walt Whitman with Walt Whitman teaching activities. Here’s what I came up with.

ELA Common Core Standards Covered

Teaching poems by Walt Whitman 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.9-10.10 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.
  3. L.9-10.5  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. 
  4. L.9-10.5a  Interpret figures of speech (e.g., euphemism, oxymoron) in context and analyze their role in the text.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. W.9-10.6  Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.
  8. W.9-10.7  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  9. W.9-10.8  Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Lesson Plan on Walt Whitman’s Poetry

This lesson on Walt Whitman involves  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

  • Research Walt Whitman Quotes and create a bumper sticker.
  • Research Walt Whitman Quotes and create t-shirts covered with quotes.
  • Conduct a poetry reading in your class. The lyric nature of Whitman’s poetry allows for lusty readings.

Teaching “O’ Captain! My Captain!”

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.

Teaching “I Hear America Singing”

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

  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.

Other 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.

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
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