Emily Wallen

Transcendentalism in Music and Film

“My perception is that the world of kids today is different from that of 20 years ago and that our curriculum needs to be aligned with the needs of the students we teach. Our society is changing and basically it’s a media-oriented world. We need to prepare kids for it.” –Principal Tim Mayes from Concord High School (Hobbs, 2007)


The purpose of this unit is to introduce and examine transcendentalism in an 11th grade English classroom. However, in order to make the concept of transcendentalism more relatable to student culture, this unit will revolve around popular cultural and relate it to the historical background of the transcendentalist movement. This unit will allow students to develop their own understandings on the themes of nature, individualism, and passive resistance.

Film, music, and media will all be integrated into the unit in order for students to recognize transcendentalism in our popular culture. The historical background and beliefs of Emerson and Thoreau will be highlighted through these mediums. Students will examine editing and symbolism in films with the goal of identifying the literary elements of transcendentalism. Viewing film will allow students to understand why an author includes certain literary components. John Golden states the following, “Like a poet, a filmmaker uses various devices and techniques for a desired effect” (Golden, 2001). With that being said, film will allow students to develop strong connections between film and the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau.

Also, music will be used, in hopes that this approach will help students understand not only transcendentalism, but also their worldviews and themselves. In Colleen A. Ruggieri’s article, “Multigenre, Multiple Intelligences, and Transcendentalism,” one student said the following,

“…It’s amazing that the messages of individuality and nature are so universal in the music. It makes me realize that what we’re reading in class really does have connections with what we see in real life. It also helps me to learn more about the people in our class. I never would have guessed that some people would have picked the songs they did, and I guess that proves that we don’t always really know each other.” (Ruggieri, 2002)

The whole purpose of this unit is to do just that, make connections between the readings students do in class with that they see or hear in real life. Also, with these approaches, we will be able to create a sense of community and allow our students to be not only classmates to one another, but get to know each other on a more personal level and gain trust in one another.

As Principal Tim Mayes says in the above quote, our curriculum needs to run parallel with the needs of the students we teach. My main objective in planning this unit is establishing ways students can develop an appreciation for literature, regardless of their skill level. In doing so, I incorporated 21st century ideas and intertwined content with concepts students are familiar with. By using music and film, this will urge students to think more openly about the creative choices that a writer, musician, or director ultimately makes. This unit will allow students to self-express as well as develop a deeper understanding of content which will lead to a higher level of thinking. Students will do a great deal of self-expression. This is because there is nothing more important in adolescent development than self-expression and in school, a Language Arts classroom is the first place a student should feel confident and comfortable to self-express their beliefs and ideas regarding content.

Students are able to gain an appreciation for literature by relating it to something they are familiar with. Music, film, and media all obtain a youth-oriented nature and make it an engaging platform to develop interest in what is being discussed. The purpose of this unit is to engage our students and give them a chance to understand the material covered in the classroom by relating it to their world.

Standards Met- Reading Standards for Literature Grades 11-12
Key Ideas and Details:
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
  • Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.
  • Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

Write Standards Grades 11-12
  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
    • Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
    • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.
    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content
    • Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening Standards for Grades 11-12
  • Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    • Work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions and decision making, set clear goals and deadlines, and establish individual roles as needed.
    • Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.
    • Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

By the end of this unit-

Students will be able to:
  1. Identify the elements of transcendentalism represented in present day genres (music, film and media)
  2. Develop their own thoughts and views regarding nature, individualism, and passive resistance.
  3. Develop questions about their own individualism and relationship to nature.

After a brief introduction and lesson regarding the historical background of the transcendentalism movement, as well as discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, students will use film, music, and media to examine the same characteristics. Before doing so, Students will read and discuss Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience." These essays will allow students to get a general understanding of certain views. However, after completing the following activities, students will be able to re-read the essays with a better understanding. The following activities do not only contain transcendentalism characteristics, many do allow students to recognize anti-transcendentalism characteristics as well. The activities provided will give students the opportunity to write and create using their own beliefs and views towards these topics.

Transcendentalism and Music:
  1. Students will listen to the song chosen and follow along with the printed lyrics given to them. While listening, students will underline all lyrics that they feel relate to the themes of individualism and nature. In this case, students will listen to Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, “Cry Freedom.” Also, students will watch the following YouTube video which provides pictures to go along with the song.

  1. Students will then do a ten minute free-write expressing why this song could obtain transcendentalist characteristics and why certain pictures were included in the montage of pictures.
  2. Students will then listen to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” a song which expresses strong ideas for individualism and reflects that each of us are individuals, and write down lyrics that express the artist’s opinions.

  1. Students will then use a graphic organizer and compare and contrast the two songs, both of which express transcendentalist beliefs, yet, very different messages.
  2. Students will then review their own music collection for homework. They will choose a song to share with their classmates and bring the song itself, the lyrics, and a paragraph explaining why they chose this song to connect with our discussion.
  3. After listening to certain portions of songs that the students choose, students will do a gallery walk around the room. This involves students walking around to posters with musical genres on them. Students will then write song titles and artists that they have found under the category it fits under best.
  4. Students will then, with two other students, discuss the following questions:
    1. What surprises do you see in regards to the lists?
    2. Are there artists who you think of as transcendentalists?
    3. Do their songs represent their views?
    4. Why do you think some categories have more songs under them?
    5. Explain why those songs express transcendental ideas.
    6. How do the songs that are listed represent your individualism? In other words, can you connect to any of the lyrics? Do they express any of your beliefs, worldviews, and/or ideas?

  1. Students will then use the following website to further their explanation of why certain lyrics and songs represent transcendental thoughts.
    Read, Write, Think- Transcendentalism

Film and Transcendentalism

  1. As a class, we will discuss how transcendentalism could be represented in film.
  2. We will have a brief overview on certain techniques that could be used when editing film especially those to exhibit transcendental views.
  3. Students will discuss more in depth Emerson and Thoreau’s beliefs and views. They will then compile their own list of film that they believe have transcendental attributes.
  4. After creating their list, the students will chose one film to show a clip to their classmates. Along with this clip, they must present a paragraph explaining why they chose it. Their paragraph should answer the following questions:
    1. Did it represent any of the following: nature, individualism, or passive resistance. If so, How?
    2. What do you think the filmmakers did to represent the above themes? Analyze events, themes, characterization or other literacy techniques in the plot or scene.
    3. How did the filmmakers use irony? Other figures of speech? How do these literacy devices help confront the social injustices that they face?
    4. After viewing this film, have your thoughts and views regarding nature, individualism, and passive resistance changed?

    5. Students will view the trailer and clips from Cast Away – Stopping between clips to discuss symbolism, irony, and other literary devices that may be necessary to discuss.

Discussion Questions:
    1. What editing techniques have been used to create transcendental messages? How does Tom Hank’s character become self-reliant? Does he become one with nature?
    2. How does his actions compare to Emerson’s or Thoreau’s beliefs? Remember, Thoreau based his writings on the right to rebel, civil disobedience, and for man to live among nature. Emerson believed in self-reliance, and independence. Does Chuck favor one transcendentalist?
    3. Are any aspects of this film anti-transcendental? Why? Why do you think they were included in the film? How has Chuck’s character changed by the end of the film? What are his views towards society now that he has returned?

Students will view clips from Into the Wild
Discussion Questions:
  1. Why is the protagonist searching for life a way from his family and the rest of society? What are his views in regards to the American consumer culture that he was a part of?
  2. How is transcendentalism driven in the beginning of this film? How does nature move Chris?
  3. McCandless says the following in the film: “I'm going to paraphrase Thoreau here... rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness... give me truth”
    And “I will miss you too, but you are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships. God's place is all around us; it is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things. . “

Students will then watch the final scene of the movie where the protagonist writies, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

Into the Wild- Final Scene

Students will then read this final quote:
"If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty."

Discussion Questions:
  1. Does the character experience a more fulfilling life by the end of the film? Why or why not? Have his views towards society changed? How does his character differ from Tom Hank’s Character?
  2. Students will then write a short debrief of the film and answer the following questions: Can you relate to Chris’ final words? What have you learned from this final scene? How has Chris gone again transcendental beliefs?

Student evaluation will be based on their participation in class discussions, completion of writing assignments and questions, sharing of their music and film choices, and based on the strength of the following enterprises:

1. Students are to find another form of transcendentalism in popular culture, other than music and film. This could be something found in the media, television, or even a comic strip.
  • Students will do exactly what they did with film and music. They will have to examine how it relates to the writings of Thoreau and Emerson.
  • Students will then put their explanations on a class blog or wiki.
2. The main project for this unit will be the following:
  • Students will create their own society. This society will be a transcendental influenced society and must adapt the ideas of this means of thought. For example, the society must have ideas of self-reliance for true happiness, the lack of government intervention, the stress on nature, and the good of humans emphasized.
  • Students must complete the following requirements to receive full credit. Also, all projects will be done on a wiki page, with a few exceptions.
1. Include a name of the society and why the name was chosen
2. Create a flag, this may be done on a poster board and used for their presentation.
3. Create values for the society
4. Answer:
  • What type of work is encouraged for the citizens?
  • Is this a Rural, Urban, or Suburban society? Is it secluded?
  • Is education a part of your society?
  • What behaviors are considered criminal? How does your society deal with such behavior?
  • Does your society have a monetary system? If so, how does it work? Provide examples of the money that would be used.
5. Students will then create a glogster that would encourage others to be a part of their society.
6. After the wiki and glogsters are completed, students will present.


Golden, John. (2001). Reading in the dark: using film as a tool in the English classroom.
Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hobbs, Renee. (2007). Reading in the media: media literacy in high school English. New York,
NY: Teachers College Press.

Price, G.S. (1999, February 26). Transcendentalist society project. Retrieved from

Ruggieri, Colleen. (2002). Multigenre, multiple intelligences, and transcendentalism. English
Journal, 92(2), Retrieved from

The transcendentalists: including Ralph Waldo Emerson- Henry David Thoreau. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.transcendentalists.com/