Invigorate Your Curriculum with the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poems enliven the disciplines of language arts, social science, and even math.

By Donna Iadipaolo

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Poetry for Young People

I recently bought the book Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson for my 8-year-old son who was, coincidently, covering this book in his school as well. Poetry for Young People is a fabulous book because it highlights many of Dickinson’s lighter poems, detailing interesting aspects of nature and animals. Our favorite poems in the book are: “I’m nobody, who are you?” and “Bee! I’m expecting you!”

Since Dickinson wrote over 1,700 poems on such varied subjects, there is something for everyone in her vast collection. Students can take compelling, original project-based approaches to analyzing her poetry and then creating a video or play using costumes and props. 

Common Core

At the high school level, common core standards that deal with figurative language and analyzing theme could be applied to writing a literary essay on recurring threads within Dickinson’s poetry. Personally, when I focused on Emily Dickinson in an American Literature class that I taught, my pupils loved creating collages that analyzed lines of her poetry juxtaposed with images of significant historical or contemporary associations. This same project could be done today in a more multi-media aspect, such as on Facebook or as a webpage.

Civil War

Many of my pupils were particularly interested in analyzing poetry in the context of the Civil War during a unit I taught connecting the poetry of Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Interestingly enough, the Civil War period was the most intensely prolific time for Dickinson. More than half of her poetry was written during this time period. Also notable, is that for many years, academic scholars argued that Dickinson completely overlooked the Civil War in her poetry. Remarkably, in recent years, some scholars such as Anne Flick contend that Dickinson’s poetry “reiterates the countryside horror of death while struggling with her own concerns about death and dying.” For instance, Flick reexamines Dickinson’s poem that starts  “I’m sorry for the Dead ---Today/It’s such congenial times.”  Another scholar, Peggy Henderson Murphy, wrote the book Isolated But Not Oblivious: A Re-evaluation of Emily Dickinson’s Relationship to the Civil War. This book may be of particular interest to educators who are curious about Dickinson’s poems as they relate to the Civil War. 

Interdisciplinary Connections

A language arts teacher could easily collaborate with a social science teacher to bring out more of the historical, psychological, and sociological contexts of Dickinson’s poetry. This is true in other interdisciplinary areas. For instance, many people may not realize that poetry is often related to mathematics. In the journal article “One and One are One”...and Two: An Inquiry into Dickinson’s Use of Mathematical Signs by Michael Theune from The Emily Dickinson Journal of 2001, Theune notes that Dickinson makes verbal references to mathematics in approximately 200 of her poems. She also employs the visual signs of mathematics in her poems. The mathematically-orientated ideas that she contemplates in her poetry include ratio, sum, and circumference. It could be enriching to research and analyze such poetry, as well as to create individual mathematical poems. Mathematics can also be related to Dickinson’s particular meter structure and rhyme pattern.

Life and Thinking

Dickinson’s life inspires research and contemplation. While she was alive, she was a relatively unknown poet. Only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Today, Dickinson is recognized as one of the top American poets, as well as one of the greatest poets of all time. But, what is perhaps most interesting, is the timeless quality of her poems. Her poems can still speak to us today.  Dickinson writes with such a vast intellectual variety that her works resonate with people of all ages and socio-economic classes. Spirituality, nature, psychology, pain, love, and death are all fair game for Dickinson’s poetry.

More resources pertaining to Emily Dickinson:

Letters from Emily Dickinson: Poetic Analysis

Pupils investigate how Emily Dickinson's poem, "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers," was developed through correspondence with her sister-in-law. They determine how Dickinson developed her voice and sought criticism of her writing. In addition, they will analyze how her sister-in-law's editing changed the poem.

Letters from Emily Dickinson: Letters and Poems

Learners analyze how Emily Dickinson perceived herself as a poet. They read correspondence between Dickinson and her preceptor, Mr. Higginson, to determine the depth of their relationship. Learners also interpret several of her poems. 

Letters from Emily Dickinson: Poetry Writing

Use this resource to analyze mood and voice in Emily Dickinson's poem, "There's a Certain Slant of Light." After the analysis, learners write a poem of their own emulating the Dickinson poem and then write a one-page essay describing what they have learned.

Making Poetry Writing Fun!

High schoolers find a group of words from an unlikely source and turn them into a poem. They discuss the central image in two well-known poems by Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. They write their own short poem expressing one central emotion.