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TeachNet NYC: Lesson Plans

What Do We Owe To Thoreau?

Project URL:

How it works:
What Do We Owe To Thoreau? is designed as an electronic reading and writing guide to Henry David Thoreau's famous essay,  "On Civil Disobedience." This curriculum unit includes a cooperative learning activity to familiarize students with the political issues of Thoreau's time. Comprehension questions are geared to the appreciation of his philosophy while at the same time challenging certain of his ideas. A range of Internet activities allows for a variety of learning styles and levels. On-task time is thus maximized. 

For instance, in lesson two, there is a polling and graphing extension activity. In addition to providing another learning opportunity to those students who finish early, it can be used to create a choice of activities. The teacher then can offer it as a motivation to students with a stronger, logical reasoning learning style as an alternative. The last lesson directs the students to pair in a mini-digital-debate using an Instant Message chat screen. Most teenagers enjoy using IM screens, so again the Web creates a unique motivational device to get the students involved in learning. Finally, there is no better, quicker, easier way than the Web to introduce the class to the topics that surround Thoreau's essay.

Standards addressed:  
Students respond to non-fiction using interpretive, critical, and evaluative processes; recognize a range of literary elements and techniques; articulate perspectives to summarize arguments on different sides of issues; develop an understanding of the diverse social, historical, and cultural dimensions of texts; produce work in at least one literary genre that follows the conventions of the genre; read and write for critical analysis and evaluation; speak to share information and ideas in small or large group discussions; use strategies to assist in comprehension; and use correct grammatical construction.

They understand the importance of such personal rights as freedom of conscience, expression and association, freedom of movement and residence, and privacy; analyze the values held by people who influenced history and the role their values played; and understand how the past affects our private lives and society in general. They use technology to collaboratively locate information, publish the results of their research, organize writing, and survey the opinions of peers; communicate effectively to a variety of audiences using multiple methods of delivery; and interact with peers.

Materials used:
Required materials include a computer with Internet connection; a projector; and books, maps, and pictures about Henry David Thoreau and associated topics.

The students:
This unit is suitable for a general education population of students with a moderate level of Internet and computer experience.

Overall value:
What Do We Owe To Thoreau?
presents a series of lessons for "On Civil Disobedience" as well as associated themes such as transcendentalism. The essay is a seminal work in American culture, but its 19th century style distances it from more easily appreciated reading material. With the Internet components of research, e-mail, online quizzes and dictionaries, and graphic materials, the teacher can incorporate a wide variety of activities to increase the students' motivation. There are many "academic" websites on Thoreau and his writing; however, this unit makes the experience interactive, which is the core benefit of computer-assisted instruction.

It is recommended that the teacher do the exercises before presentation. The reading selections are short and may need to be lengthened. A collection of books, pictures, maps, etc. should be brought into the classroom. Consider encouraging the students to create things, like an ad for an apartment for Thoreau, a rap poem, a goodie bag from his aunt, and so on, to lighten up the topic.  Extension activities may integrate different software applications (eg PowerPoint presentation) if


About the teacher:
Julie Vitulano is a project director of a 21st Century Community Learning grant in Manhattan. Before that, she was a high school English and ESL teacher. Throughout her teaching career, she had been involved with computer-assisted instruction. Her ELA classes were all successfully conducted in computer labs. During those ten years, her career paralleled the development of Internet technology in education. She is the recipient of a variety of awards associated with technology in education including two Impact II awards. Since becoming an educational administrator, she has continued to act as a proponent for infusing technology across the curricula.


Subject Areas:                            English 
Social Studies 

Grade Levels: 



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