Lessons on Longfellow

Revisit the 19th-century celebrity phenom

This past week, my junior English III students learned about one of America’s first celebrities, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Yes, he’s old-fashioned. Yes, he’s so “19th-century.” However, his work is ingrained in our popular collective culture like few other literary giants.

Unfortunately, however, our Glencoe textbook includes only one of his poems. Can you believe that?! Furthermore, can you believe that the poem featured is the somber and ghostly verse, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls?” It seems like a strange choice to me, considering the full range of other, more well-known verses.

After all, Longfellow is one of only two (Henry James is the other) American poets memorialized in Poets’ Corner of London’s Westminster Abbey. That being the case, you might think Longfellow would command more front-of-mind awareness among readers today, including students.

Not so. Out of my 45 students, only two said they had heard of Longfellow.

They didn’t know anything beyond that, however… not even the rest of the poet’s name.

Yes, a handful recognized the iconic lines “Listen my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,” but no one knew who wrote that famous line or anything about the poem.

And really, that’s about all they knew of Longfellow’s work.

If you’re a little rusty on Longfellow, don’t despair. To brush up on your Longfellow smarts, read these articles:

“What Is There to Love About Longfellow? (The New Yorker)

Myths and Facts of Revere’s Midnight Ride (Paul Revere Heritage Project)

The Many Lives of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Harvard Gazette)

Poetry and American Memory (The Atlantic)

Longfellow’s hugely popular works, such as Evangeline, A Song of Hiawatha, and “A Psalm of Life,” were unheard of among my students.

But not anymore.

Before we even read any Longfellow poetry, I asked students to do a little research on their own or with a partner using these sheets (see photo at right below) from Laura Randazzo on TpT. (Note: I glued a darker, copier-ready Wikimedia Commons image of Longfellow (see below) onto the sheet over the pale image supplied on Randazzo’s download.)

I also found some good sources for students to use instead of letting them roam the web aimlessly. I used these sources: The Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from the Maine Historical Society, What is There to Love About Longfellow from The New Yorker, and this biography from Famous Poets and Poems.

These sheets were a more interesting way for students to gain knowledge on Longfellow than from me reading from a slew of slides. (However, I did make two slides that contained more general information for students to jot down before they started on the sheet.)

To provide more Longfellow poems for my students, I inserted poems onto some slides in my giant and ever-growing English III Google Slides presentation. Then I printed out those slides to make some packets that students could annotate as we read them in class.

Here are the Longfellow poems I included in the packet, which we read and annotated in class:

  • “A Psalm of Life”… the inspiring “seize the day” approach to life
  • “The Day is Done”… a humble tribute to hard work and a restful, poetic evening
  • “The Children’s Hour”… a charming memory of Longfellow playing with his little girls
  • “Paul Revere’s Ride”… the history poem that created an American mythic hero
  • “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls”…a ghostly reflection on mortality
  • “The Cross of Snow“… a memory of Longfellow’s second wife’s tragic death eighteen years prior and a vision of the divine in Nature
  • A Song of Hiawatha… the American epic written to imitate the European classics

To read the poems, we arranged our desks into a loose circle (and in my bigger class, the best we could do was rotate our desks toward the center of the room), passed around the packets and highlighters, dimmed the lights and turned on the “fireplace” YouTube video below.

It just made sense to have this glowing on the whiteboard as we read and talked about the poems. Longfellow was one of the “Fireside Poets,” after all, along with four other poets (William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes). Back in the day, it was common for people to read poetry around the fireplace during the evenings.

No Netflix. No HBO. Just poetry.

And, to top it off, it was dreary and rainy outside on the morning we read these in my classroom. Perfect!

Reading and annotating these poems occurred on the second and third days of a three-day Longfellow mini-unit that I covered with my students after our bell work activities. For help with annotating, I asked students to:

  • 1) circle new words
  • 2) underline lines that resonate with them
  • 3) draw a wavy line under confusing lines
  • 4) highlight especially vivid imagery

Side Note: Annotation is something my students struggle with and, honestly, I think it’s because they don’t see a purpose in it. I try to help them annotate to some degree since I know they’ll understand better the benefits of it when they go on to college or a trade school.

highligher markers
Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

To experience these Longfellow poems, I read aloud and asked some volunteers to read as well.

There’s something about good poetry. My students seemed engaged during the readings and I think it helped to have them marking up their packets as we worked.

Here are some photos of some of the pages from these packets, which I plan to have them use in a short written piece next week.

Longfellow poem "A Psalm of Life"
This is a classic poem. I’m thinking of having students memorize it. Its optimistic “seize the day” approach is memorable and uplifting.
The Children's Hour poem by Longfellow
“The Children’s Hour” goes a long way in showing Longfellow’s love for family and home. Its charming story of Longfellow’s daughters sneaking up on him (and him playing along!) as he worked is fun to read.
The Cross of Snow by Longfellow
“The Cross of Snow” is a good one to lead into discussions about Transcendentalism and ideas on the intersection of the divine and Nature.
Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow
You can’t teach Longfellow and not read “The Song of Hiawatha.”

I pulled some information from Shmoop.com to provide a balanced discussion of both the positive and negative aspects of Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. In addition, I read aloud the National Park Service article pictured below to give students a balanced critique of Longfellow’s epic.

an article from the National Park Service about Song of Hiawatha
This article provides a balanced overview of Longfellow’s work, reputation and his legacy that continues today to influence attitudes toward Native Americans.
Marilyn Yung, owner of ELA Brave and True

I hope this post gives you some basic ideas about how to introduce your students to the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I feel it’s important for students to receive at least a couple class periods of instruction on this literary giant.

Have a great week! Leave a comment by replying to this post or contacting me via my Contact page.

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Featured Photo Credit: Creative Commons | This bronze memorial statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is located near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.

Love teaching. Make it memorable. | ELA Brave and True

Published by Marilyn Yung

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

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