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American Writers Video Lessons

Directions: Use the themes, questions and video clips below to teach and learn with portions of C-SPAN's American Writers program featuring Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walden and Henry David Thoreau and Nature. Link to the complete video clip list to identify clip descriptions and create your own lessons. Each theme contains questions and video clips appropriate for varying grade levels.

Lesson Credit:
Curriculum Advisory Team member, Barry Davis and Betsy Fitzgerald.

Choose from three themes:
How Nature Nurtures
Level One
Watch   Clips 39 - 41
Level Two
Watch   Clip 52
Level Three
Watch   Clip 32

1. Define nature in the context of Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists. Consider multiple meanings.
2. Why did they emphasize nature in their writings? What conditions in their society led them to expound on the value of nature? What concerned them about their and others' relationship to nature? What did nature offer?
3. What actions did they take in their lives, or recommend in their writings to underscore the value of nature? How were their ideas received? What cultural, political, social or economic conditions existed that set the tone for either the acceptance or rejection of their ideas on nature?
4. Did the writers eschew contemporary society completely? How did they marry the principles of nature with life in the modern world? Are those who are less removed from nature, less attuned? How could someone living in a large city embrace nature?
5. To what degree do Emerson and Thoreau influence today's conservationists or environmentalists? How are the principles of their ideas evident in current events, practices or behaviors today?

Expansion: Growing Pains
Level One
Watch   Clips 5 & 6
Level Two
Watch   Clip 49
Level Three
Watch   Clips 46 & 47

1. Document and characterize the country's growth from 1830-1860. Consider both geographic expansion and population. What factors impacted the growth?
2. Consider the growth in Emerson and Thoreau's hometown, Concord. What were the visible signs that the community was changing? Describe both economic changes and political. What ideas started to take root? To what degree was the country's growth the impetus for changes in political ideas?
3. What benefit did the United States stand to gain through geographic expansion? What principles were guiding the growth? Consider especially the waging of the Mexican War. What were Emerson and Thoreau's reactions to expansionism? Why did Thoreau call President Polk a humbug? What actions did they take or recommend to mitigate some of the problems they observed?
4. Emerson and Thoreau were writing on the cusp of the Civil War. Consider the ways their work addressed, directly, or indirectly, the causes of the Civil War. Did the writers offer an alternative to civil war? To what degree did the writers and their ideas impact the country's ability to resolve the divisions within? Compare the power of the written word to that of the sword.
5. Consider the most recent census results. In what ways is America growing today? How has, or how might, the country's growth lead to changes in the economy and the political climate? What individuals are speaking or writing about ways to address growth and change in our country?

The Cycles of Civil Disobedience
Level One
Watch   Clip 13
Level Two
Watch   Clip 36
Level Three
Watch   Clip 24

1. What is the written work, Civil Disobedience? Describe the events in Thoreau's life that inspired him to write the essay.
2. Why did Thoreau break the law? Consider both the facts of the individual case and the principles underlying his decision. What were the consequences? Did his act of civil disobedience have an impact on other people? Was his protest effective? Explain.
3. How do the ideas in Civil Disobedience relate to Emerson and Thoreau's philosophies of nature? Were Thoreau's actions in breaking the law consistent with his other actions and ideas?
4. How was the work received? Consider the reaction at the time. What if all Americans had followed Thoreau's example? What specific conditions might have changed?
5. Consider also the impact Civil Disobedience has had on other individuals in history. What do both Thoreau, John Brown and the students at Tienemen Square have in common? How are each of their situations different? Under what circumstances is civil disobedience acceptable? Under what conditions is it not appropriate to break the law? Is civil disobedience inevitable in a society? How have other individuals added to our understanding of its appropriateness?
6. How would you have responded in Thoreau's circumstances? What did civil disobedience require of Thoreau? For which of your own views would you put yourself on the line?

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