Students of all ages find their way to Emily Dickinson through different avenues. Below are some of the most useful--examining her language and poetry, sharing her poetry orally, thinking about her life, and considering her interest in the natural world. Some ideas may or may not be appropriate for all grade levels. Educators should tailor suggestions to make them age-appropriate for their students.
In 2009 and 2011 the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop for Schoolteachers. Below are links to curriculum projects developed by participants.
photo by Steve Fratoni
DICKINSON TEXTS: All lesson plans refer to specific texts by Emily Dickinson. In most cases, for copyright reasons, the full texts of poems are not included with the lesson plans. Each teacher provides a list of resources with the lesson plan.
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COPYRIGHT: These educators have kindly made these lesson plans available for the use of all teachers, but all publication and distribution rights are reserved. Inquires to individual teachers can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include "question for educator" in the subject line.
FEEDBACK: We would be delighted to hear about your experiences with these lesson plans, or about your own ideas! Please e-mail us.
Bonnie Raines, Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, Santa Rosa, California (NEH 2011)
This is a six-week unit focused on the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. Students memorize some poems, write about and discuss others, learn about her life, create visual art, and finally perform in an alphabetical performance piece including three poems put to music that I composed on the piano.
For complete lesson plan, click Emily Endures (PDF 1 file, 15 pages, 1 MB)
Diane Moller, Library Media Specialist, Lewisboro Elementary School, South Salem, NY (NEH 2009)
Emily Dickinson’s poetry was integral to her environment. While her themes are universal, readers can get a unique understanding of her poetry by understanding where and how she lived. Her poetry appeals to the senses with her use of precise language. Hearing her poetry helps to illuminate her words and deepen our understanding of her work. At the end of this unit, students will be able to explain how Emily Dickinson’s life influenced the themes in her poetry. They will also be able to create a digital representation of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems using the program Photostory3 with appropriate images and music. Students will be able to mark a poem for words that evoke the senses.
For complete lesson plan, click Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: The Senses Create a Vision (PDF 5 files, 18 pages total, 336 KB)
To view three student samples, click here.
Lynette Miller Gottlieb, Ashbrook Independent School, Corvallis OR (NEH 2011)
This series of lessons explores the nature of friendship as seen through the words and descriptions of Emily Dickinson in her letters and poetry. Students will not only develop their understanding of what friendship meant to the poet, but also develop their own personal ideas about what friendship means to them in their adolescence. In celebration of their learning and the beauty of friendship, students will create a friendship token and bestow it on someone special to them.
For complete lesson plan, click Emily Dickinson and the Meaning of Friendship (PDF 1 file, 12 pages, 675 KB)
Cherise Lopez, Hinsdale Central High School, Hinsdale, Illinois (NEH 2011)
After an introduction to Dickinson’s life and work, my students had to choose one poem to analyze. The analysis included a poster creation wherein the students identified the poetic devices in the piece and discussed how these devices achieved the writer’s purpose and message. On this same poster, students also reflected on what they believed inspired Dickinson to write it based on the background knowledge they received regarding her life. In addition to this reflection, students had to identify a source of inspiration for themselves and create their own piece of poetry or art.
For complete lesson plan, click What Inspired Emily? What Inspires You? (PDF 1 file, 4 pages, 301 KB)
Grades 9-12, literature classes, writing classes, creative writing classes
Cynthia Storrs, The Classical Academy, Colorado Spring, CO (NEH 2009)
In this series of lessons, students will examine the poetry of Emily Dickinson and explore the diction of poetry: how words change not only meaning, but tone and style. They will experience the differences made by word choice, and propose reasons for editorial choices made in Dickinson’s work. In classrooms where students compose their own poetry, students can also repeat the experimentation with their poetry, and dialogue with fellow writers about what would be the best word choices for their poetry, and why.
For complete lesson plan, click Editing Emily's Way: An Exercise in Diction and Its Implications (PDF 1 file, 4 pages, 66 KB)
Grade 11 Honors American literature
Rosemary Loomis, Lexington High School, Lexington MA (NEH 2009)
This 7-day unit gives students the opportunity to study and understand Dickinson and her work from a variety of perspectives. Students will reflect on the topic of Freedom and Limitation, learn something of Dickinson's relationship to that topic, discover poems of Dickinson on that topic, interpret and analyze those poems, and produce original poems that “echo” some of Dickinson's style. While the lesson can be adapted, it is preferable that both teacher and students have access to computers and the Internet for maximum impact.
For complete lesson plan, click "No Prisoner Be": Exploring Freedom and Limitation in the Work of Emily Dickinson (PDF 3 files, 11 pages total, 136 KB)
Elizabeth Sokolov, The Madeira School, MacLean, VA (NEH 2009)
This assignment is a critical essay where students will craft an argument that traces Dickinson’s intellectual, spiritual, or emotional journey using a recurrent and meaningful word across three of her poems.
For complete lesson plan, click Dickinson’s “Loaded” Words: A Critical Essay Assignment (PDF, 1 file, 5 pages, 45 KB)
Courtney Rein and Jonathan Howland, The Urban School, San Francisco, CA (NEH 2009)
Dickinson’s letters comprise form of self-publication, even as her poems constitute a form of private inquiry, a conversation with the self. The learning goal is to help students construct an understanding of these overlapping dimensions of Dickinson’s poetry and persona.
Students will read selected letters and poems of Emily Dickinson and construct their own understanding of the ideas and questions at play therein.
For complete lesson plan, click Emily Dickinson: Luminous Letters (PDF, 1 file, 6 pages, 465 KB)
Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1800 poems, so where does an educator begin? Here are some suggestions from teachers who have successfully taught Dickinson's poetry:
Emily Dickinson's poetry lends itself well to oral interpretation in the classroom. Dickinson herself was known to have recited her poems to relatives while she worked in the Homestead pantry, and one of her earliest editors was convinced of her work's value only after someone read them aloud to him.
Teachers have found that students respond well to learning a Dickinson poem and sharing it out loud with classmates. Here are some approaches to help students share Dickinson's poetry, and their knowledge of her life, aloud.
Because Emily Dickinson's life and work are intimately connected, introducing the person behind the poems to students can be a powerful way to make connections.
However, students also need to understand that Dickinson's poems should not be read as autobiography. Poetry may be informed by, and is often a reflection on, personal experience, but it should not be read as a diary. Educators should keep this in mind as they talk with their students about Dickinson and her work.
Here are some ideas for introducing Dickinson's biography:
|View of the Homestead from Emily Dickinson Museum garden|
Emily Dickinson's poetry works well in interdisciplinary studies, especially with science. An astute observer of nature, Dickinson reveals in her poetry an intimate knowledge of the natural world and an understanding of the process of scientific discovery. Her strong sense of place, too, offers an opportunity to consider how one's environment affects a person's outlook and approach to life as well as to art.
Curriculum ideas courtesy of Marta McDowell, landscape historian.
The following poems have been successfully used with a variety of age levels:
PLEASE NOTE: Dickinson titled few of her poems, so they are generally referred to by first line. The number following each first line above refers to the most recent edition of Dickinson’s work, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1998). It is available in a reading edition published in 1999. Dickinson’s poems do remain under copyright. Many versions found on the Internet are taken from earlier versions of her work that are heavily edited. A source that does include some Dickinson texts taken from the Franklin edition can be found at http://poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/155.