Ralph Waldo Emerson for High School Students

Winter photos show Emerson’s “perfect exhilaration”

A recent snow day activity has sparked my curiosity about the possibilities of combining student photography with reading.

Here’s the story. Our school was closed all week two weeks ago due to snow, rain, and sub-zero temperatures that descended on our region (and a large swath of the country) for several days.

For an area that might see only about three to four inches of snow in total during a typical winter, the extra snow plus the extreme temperatures made this particular storm one for the record books.

During our week at home, the Transcendentalism unit my juniors were studying was put on pause… except for the day I asked them to venture outside to find and photograph the “perfect exhilaration” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of in his essay titled, “Nature.”

Bulletin board of outdoor photos taken in an high school English classroom.
I printed out students’ photos and created this bulletin board for the duration of our unit on Transcendentalism.

Download these Emerson quote posters for your bulletin board!

In “Nature,” Emerson writes of the divine spirit each person experiences when they spend time in nature. I hoped that asking students to go outside, take a walk, and capture images of nature — in its beautiful as well as not so beautiful moments — would help them to connect better with Emerson’s influential essay.

Here’s a favorite passage:

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Nature”

Each student took a photo and submitted it on Google Classroom or emailed it to me. I was impressed with the variety of photos turned in and the compositions on several.

Nature doesn’t have to be beautiful to be appreciated. Even ordinary sights can be majestic when viewed through the lens of Transcendentalism. In fact, nature is where we can feel the most alive, perceptive, and part of a larger cosmos.

“I am not alone and unacknowledged.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”

“The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me; when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”

There are so many distractions to keep us indoors — such as writing this blog post on a Saturday afternoon LOL! And even though many of my students naturally go outside to tend livestock and perform other chores, encouraging them to notice nature seemed both necessary and appropriate considering our recent Emerson readings.

By now, obviously, all that snow has melted and magically disappeared. The temperatures have risen back to the mid-50s. It’s a different world… one that may appear more typically beautiful, but one that in Emerson’s eyes wouldn’t have been more beautiful, just different.

The possibilities of photography

This snow day activity has prompted me to further consider more possible uses of photography in my high school English classes. Are there other ways I can combine student photography with reading and writing?

Besides creativity, could photography provide another way to engage students, build relevancy, and add another medium to the ELA mix?

A copy of "The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson"

After all, with cell phones in nearly every student’s hand, the inclusion of photography seems like an obvious and convenient extension to reading and writing tasks. Here’s how Annenberg Learner’s PD website puts it:

“Photographs have changed the way we see ourselves — and the world. Whether a creative expression, a captured moment, or a deliberate document of a time, place, or event, images give us a way to see things we may otherwise not see — especially if we take the time to look closely.”

“Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum,”
Marilyn Yung

To see things we may otherwise not see and to examine more closely… those were exactly my goals with this snow day activity. My new thoughts about photography and how to incorporate it more often in ELA was an unexpected bonus.

Do you incorporate photography in your ELA classes? If so, feel free to share your ideas and experiences in a comment below or by leaving a message via my contact page!

Note: Student photos used with permission.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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