Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Transcendentalism emerged in the early-mid 19th century as a distinctly American philosophy that melded emotion with reason in the pursuit of individualism and moral self-sufficiency. While many students see the 19th century as a period in which not much happens between the Louisiana Purchase and Civil War, this was a period of incredible intellectual flourishing. The following project ideas can help your students delve deeper into this philosophical movement in American history. These projects are intended for higher-level students but are also designed to be easily adaptable to fit into other classrooms.
Start by assigning each student a transcendentalist thinker from US history (if your class is very large, you can consider expanding this into related movements like Romanticism). The list of names should include figures like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Students will take time to research their historical figure, learning about their life, philosophy, accomplishments, and contributions to transcendentalism. Eventually, you will host a living history day in class in which each student will present a short skit introducing themselves as their historical figure. Whether or not you ask them to come in costume depends on the preferences and resources of your class.
- Materials: List of transcendentalists, costume and prop supplies as desired
Edited Transcendentalist Volume
Provide students with a substantial reading list containing the names of books, articles, editorials, and other literature (short stories, poems, etc.) associated with transcendentalism. Over a long period of time, students will work through as much of this list as they can (or as much as you feel comfortable asking them to) in order to gain a deep understanding of transcendentalism.
Ultimately, you will ask students to demonstrate their knowledge by compiling great works together into an edited text that explores the ideas of transcendentalism. Students will select chapters from books, articles, poems, or passages from the works they read and organize them by themes and ideas. You can ask students to either put together an actual copy of their edited volume of transcendentalist ideas, or simply write out the table of contents that lists their selections and organization of these works. In addition, students will write an introduction to their edited text that summarizes the history of the movement, presents the major themes, and explains their choices in selecting and editing the works in this edited volume.
If you wish to expand upon this, you can also ask students to research, identify, and incorporate documents from related movements like the Second Great Awakening, Romanticism, and abolitionism into their edited volumes. This could also include a wider range of literary texts like poems and short stories that were published as part of the intellectual renaissance in the time.
- Materials: Reading list, access to transcendentalist works, writing/typing/printing supplies as desired
Divide the class into small groups and inform them that they are creating a new Transcendental Club, modeled after the group that founded transcendentalism. Provide students with a large packet of primary sources written by transcendentalist authors and thinkers. Students will read and analyze these individually, then reconvene as a group. In their groups, students will do the following:
- Write a transcendentalist manifesto based on the philosophies they saw in the primary sources.
- Develop an outline for creating a transcendentalist society based on the ideas in their manifesto. This outline should include the name of their society, a physical description of how it will be physically laid out, the organization and structures that maintain this society, and the values and principles of this society. Each group will put this into a poster or prepare a skit to present their society to the class.
- Note: You can ask students to complete this by pretending they are alive in the early-mid 19th century, or ask them to create a transcendentalist society for the 21st century
If you wish to expand upon this, you can also ask each group to come up with a plan for them to start living by these transcendentalist values, based on their individual choices and attitudes. Students will try to live according to this plan for 1 week, during which they will journal their thoughts and reflect on ideas about nature, identity, society, civil disobedience, and individualism.
- Materials: Packet of transcendentalist writings, writing and craft supplies as desired
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