When I think of Walt Whitman, I think of being 10 years old; desperately trying to understand all the words in Leaves of Grass. I remember reading page after page, seeing images in my mind, but not grasping the depth and deeply philosophical concepts contained within. I experienced Whitman time and again as an emerging human. and was continually amazed at how my understanding of his words had changed and grown with age and experience.
Our students are like that. They seek out understanding, but are only capable of grasping the breadth of certain concepts when they are developmentally ready. While this is true, we can still introduce young children to the ideas and ways that Whitman expressed his reality. I think there are three major areas that Whitman can fit into the classroom, even at the elementary age. His writing fits well in lessons concerning literature, environmental awareness, and civil rights or language arts, science, and social studies; depending on how you choose to look at it.
Whitman and Language Arts
The most obvious location for a Whitman experience is during a language arts lesson. Take simple excerpts from poems such as “Song of Myself” or “Unseen Buds” and have learners close their eyes and experience the imagery. I like to set up a flower vase, fruit plate, or sit in the school yard under a tree with my class and let them attempt to create a verbal painting, sharing what they observed. I encourage them to use the clean prose style that Whitman does, and then grow into more symbolic, or microscopic, writing later in the year. Because Whitman writes about universal themes and topics, his poems are perfect for compare and contrast lessons. Upper graders can compare and contrast Emily Dickinson to Walt Whitman. They wrote during the same time period about similar subject matter, but with completely different voices. Have them compare Dickinson’s “Success” to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
Whitman and Environmental Awareness
Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson all used nature to convey transcendentalist philosophy and, in essence, the human condition. Have your young writers attempt to parallel the human experience with the natural world. They will (hopefully) begin to see the connection between man and his environment, man's place in nature, and gain a deeper understanding of how they should interact with it. During an environmental awareness or ecology lesson, have your class read some of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson then engage them in a discussion where small groups take on the naturalistic view point from each of the poets. They can use the prose and current environmental issues to discuss what each poet would have written or thought about if they were alive in the 21st century. This is a great way to parallel the past with the present and to show that the environment has been a hot topic since man learned to create fire.
Whitman and Social Studies
What I, as a young reader, learned most from Whitman was the need to establish a free and equal society for all. Before and after the Civil War, he bravely stood against slavery and advocated equal rights and human dignity. Even as a child, this amazed me. When reading about history, I like to show my pupils that words make a difference, that they matter, and that in every age or era there have been voices that cut so deeply to the root of current issues that they must be heard. I love pairing a Civil War lesson with Whitman’s anti-slavery poems. “I Sing the Body Electric” is a wonderfully rich poem, perfect for showing students that there have always been activists who intrinsically and emphatically love their fellow man. Have your class read about slavery and how poets like Whitman conveyed their distaste for it. Next, have them research similar events currently taking place around the globe. Ask them to write a poem speaking out for civil and human rights. The culminating project should contain a short essay explaining a human rights violation from the past 15 years, their original poem, and an explanation of how the situation should be rectified.
These ideas are skeletal at best, but I hope they inspire an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. All things are connected, and for some reason, Whitman makes this clear to me as a teacher. Add a poet to any lesson and you’ve made something memorable.