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Glaciers on Main Street? The Nature Writing of John Burroughs and John Muir


Objectives
Standards
Materials
Procedure
Assessment
Extensions/Adaptations
Resources

Grade level: 7th to 12th

Subjects: Language arts

Estimated Time of Completion: Five class periods, with an intervening weekend

Objectives for Students

  • To evaluate two types of nature writing and explain the benefits of both.
  • To identify various literary devices in writings from the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition, and to analyze their usage in context.
  • To assess their hometown from the perspective of others, including an “outsider” and a naturalist’s perspective.
  • To define voice in literature, and to apply this device to their own writing.
  • To develop group skills in language arts, including peer editing, sharing and group critique and discussion techniques.

Standards

Language Arts:

  • Correlates to the national standards developed by MCREL.
  • Uses general writing skills and strategies of the writing process. (Standard 1)
  • Uses stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing. (Standard 2)
  • Uses grammatical and mechanical conventions in written compositions. (Standard 3)
  • Gathers and uses information for research purposes. (Standard 4)
  • Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes. (Standard 8)

Materials

  • Each student will need photocopies of two sections from Harriman Expedition writings found in the Dover Reprint Edition of Volumes I and II from the Harriman Expedition. The citation is Burroughs, Muir et al. Alaska: The Harriman Expedition, 1899. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1986. p. 35-48 and 119-135.
  • Writing materials
  • Writing guides, including a dictionary of literary terms. See Resource section for suggestions.
  • Internet access

Procedure

Overview:

Both John Burroughs and John Muir were, in 1899, widely-read and recognized nature writers, and both strongly influenced the budding environmental movement of the day. Writing about the Harriman Expedition, Burroughs developed a poetic narrative focused on the scenery, while Muir presented a more scientific view of Alaska's glaciers. Their writings, reviewed in this lesson plan, give the students an opportunity to compare these two approaches, and to adapt some of the literary devices for their own use.

Prior to the assignment, assess the class with regard to familiarity with literary devices (metaphors, similes, assonance, etc.) Devote a class period to introduction or review, and have literary guides on hand for class reference.

Part I – Preparatory Assignment:

The two essays should be assigned as in-class or home reading, depending on time availability. When assigning the reading, direct the students to “coach” the paper, that is to read actively, write comments, questions and new vocabulary words in the margin.

The main focus for these two papers will be descriptions of glaciers, and the various literary tools Burroughs and Muir use in these excerpts. Review literary devices, their definition and give examples.

Ask the students to read the Burroughs paper during the first reading session. Remind them to note and provide examples of different literary tools Burroughs used.

Part II – Analyzing the Burroughs Essay:

Arrange the students into small groups of four or five to discuss the night's reading. Have them begin with content, discussing subject, technique and response to style.

After an initial discussion, have students compile questions they've noted and a list of descriptive phrases from the essay. These should be, at first, simple lists. After fifteen minutes, ask each group to organize the descriptions into various categories of literary tools that the students have identified.

After approximately thirty minutes, bring the class together and answer any questions. Then aks the groups to present their categories. The teacher will provide the literary terms for their groupings, if they in fact fall into a category, or will provide other ways in which they could be grouped. If time allows, the students will practice some of these literary tools on their own, or will do so the next day.

Part III – Analyzing the Muir Essay:

Assign and discuss the Muir essay using the same techniques as above. The listing and grouping should take much less time, and the class should need less instruction. Use any extra time for practice with literary forms, and with sharing student work.

Part IV – Weekend Assignment:

Assign a weekend walk though town. Each students should cover an agreed-upon distance, making notes and observations as if they were naturalists. Muir and Burroughs described the glaciers in Alaska; your students can focus on architecture, trees, streets, topography. Assign two short papers – one emulating Muir, the second, Burroughs. Remind them that Burroughs would employ a narrative, romantic accounting of the scenes. Muir, though sometimes florid, wrote in a more scientific manner.

Part V – Peer Response and Final Drafts:

  • After the papers are written, students should gather in small groups for peer responses. Ask them to focus on both the mechanics and the substance of the paper. Have the peer responders keep lists of the various descriptive tools used by their classmates, and listen for the voice of the narrator in the work.
  • Allow at least two days for rewriting, either as class time or homework. The final drafts should be shared with the class in some manner, either in a brief written synopsis or as a reading.

Assessment Suggestions

  • The students should be assessed on the quality of the coaching of the papers and their final papers.
  • The final papers could be evaluated using a rubric that focuses on the use of descriptive devices and voice.

Extensions/Adaptations

The above activities could be incorporated into a unit on American nature writers. Consider using works by Thoreau and Emerson, and contemporary writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez.

Resources

  • Burroughs, Muir et al. Alaska: The Harriman Expedition, 1899. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1986.
  • Baldick, Chris, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1988.
  • ____, The Modern Language Association Manual of Style, published by the Modern Language Association.


Prepared by Neil McMahon.

 

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