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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: An American Studies Approach for Middle School

Statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Portland, ca. 1910

Statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Portland, ca. 1910 / Maine Historical Society

A resource developed through the Longfellow and the Forging of American Identity program

Author: Judith Donahue, Language Arts Teacher, 7th and 8th grades, and
Pamela Goucher, Librarian, Freeport Middle School, Freeport, Maine
Suggested Grade Level: 6-12
Subject Areas: Language Arts, Social Studies

Time Required:
This unit can be completed in four weeks.

Learning Objectives:
To place Longfellow?s poetry in the context of his life and times.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was truly a man of his time and of his nation; this native of Portland, Maine and graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine became an American icon. Lines from his poems intersperse our daily speech and the characters of his long narrative poems have become part of American myth. Longfellow's fame was international; scholars, politicians, heads-of-state and everyday people read and memorized his poems. Our goal is to show that just as Longfellow reacted to and participated in his times, so his poetry participated in shaping and defining American culture and literature.

The following unit plan introduces and demonstrates an American Studies approach to the life and work of Longfellow. Because the collaborative work that forms the basis for this unit was partially responsible for leading the two of us to complete the American & New England Studies Masters program at University of Southern Maine, we returned there for a working definition of "American Studies approach" as it applies to the grade level classroom. Joe Conforti, who was director at the time we both went through the program, offered some useful clarifying comments and explanation. He reminded us that such a focus provides a holistic approach to the life and work of an author. It sets a work of literature in a broad cultural and historical context as well as in the context of the poet's life. The aim of an American Studies approach is to "broaden the context of a work to illuminate the American past" (Conforti) for your students.

We have found this approach to have multiple benefits at the classroom and research level. It brings the poems and the poet alive for students and connects with other curricular work, especially social studies. When linked with a Maine history unit, it helps to place Portland and Maine in an historical and cultural context. It also provides an inviting atmosphere for the in-depth study of the mechanics of Longfellow's poetry.

What follows is a set of lesson plans that form a unit of study. The biographical "anchor" that we have used for this unit is an out-of-print biography An American Bard: The story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by Ruth Langland Holberg, Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, c1963. Permission has been requested to make this work available as a downloadable file off this web page, but in the meantime, used copies are readily and cheaply available from various vendors. The poem we have chosen to demonstrate our approach is "Paul Revere?s Ride." The worksheets were developed by Judy Donahue, the explanatory essays researched and written by the two of us, and our sources are cited below. We have also included a list of helpful links. When possible we have included helpful material in text format, or have supplied site links. Our complete unit includes other Longfellow poems with the same approach, but in the interest of time and space, they are not included. Please feel free to contact us with questions and comments.

Materials Required:
Lesson outlines are included with each document packet:

Lesson Plan Packet Overview

Document Packet One:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?s Poetry: Giving students a biographical background - Teacher instructions and Document Packet
An American Bard: The Story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Ruth Langland Holberg, 1963. (35 MB)

Document Packet Two:
Introducing Longfellow's Paul Revere: Instructions for teachers and Document packet

Document Packet Three:
American Studies Analysis and Discussion: Transition to Contextual Analysis of Longfellow's "Paul Revere?s Ride": Instructions for teachers
American Studies Analysis and Discussion: Transition to Contextual Analysis of Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride": Document Packet