Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Emily Dickinson and Poetic Imagination: "Leap, Plashless"


The Lesson


Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Emily Dickinson's poetry often reveals a child-like fascination with the natural world. She writes perceptively of butterflies, birds, and bats and uses lucid metaphors to describe the sky and the sea. This wonderful balance between imagination and observation is, in many ways, what makes Dickinson's verse so perfect for children and the perfect hook for a life-long appreciation of poetry.

In this lesson, students will read and explore one of Dickinson's nature poems, "A Bird came down the Walk—" through interaction with other art forms. First, they will listen to clips of a hymn to help them hear Dickinson's meter. Then, they will view 19th-century bird images and describe what they see, just as a poet would, and they will observe how a poet plays with language and imagery to create a scene by acting out verse lines. Finally, they will write a brief poem of their own using what they have learned and their own observations.

Guiding Questions

  • How does a poet use imagery, sound, and metaphor to tell a story or create an impression?
  • In what ways is Dickinson's poem related to other 19th-century arts?

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, students will:

  • Learn how to read and understand poetry
  • Become familiar with Emily Dickinson's verse
  • Understand the literary use of imagery, sound, and metaphor
  • Discover how to listen for meter in songs and poems
  • Make connections between visual, audio, and verbal texts
  • Employ creative writing skills

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Read the poem used in this lesson: "A Bird came down the Walk—." In "A Bird came down the Walk—" note how Dickinson describes the bird and its behavior with various metaphors. The last stanza is particularly lovely in the way Dickinson uses images of the sea to describe the sky.
  • Read a number of Dickinson's poems to re-familiarize yourself with her verse. You may want to focus on poetry that specifically addresses nature, such as "The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings—," "I started Early—Took my Dog—," and "I taste a liquor never brewed—."
  • Read biographical and analytical material about Emily Dickinson and her work. A wonderful site to explore is Titanic Operas, part of the Dickinson Electronic Archives, which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets. Your students may want to know a little bit about Dickinson's life: she lived in Amherst, Massachusetts in the mid 1800s, read widely, wrote letters to friends and family but rarely left her home, and wrote thousands of poems, most of which were not published until after her death. For more information about Emily Dickinson, see the fourth item under "Preparing to Teach this Lesson" in the EDSITEment lesson plan Letters from Emily Dickinson: 'Will you be my preceptor?'.
  • If you have time, read the first few paragraphs of the "Hymns and Spirituals" section of the University of Virginia, Lift Every Voice website via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia. Dickinson writes in the same meters commonly used in hymns. The poem in this lesson is in short measure (four lines of 6, 6, 8, and 6 syllables, respectively). As a Protestant, she likely would have heard similar hymns sung in church.
  • Explore Alexander Wilson, American Ornithologist, part of the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia website. Look at the various detailed images of birds, and consider what qualities the artist emphasizes.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Sound and Rhythm
  • Introduce the lesson by telling students that today they will read a poem by Emily Dickinson, who lived in Massachusetts in the 1800s and wrote thousands of poems. Together as a class, read "A Bird came down the Walk—" chorally. The students should recognize that there is a consistent rhythm (or pattern of beats), like in a song or nursery rhyme. You may want to have your students count out the syllables (or beats) with you. Can they find the number of syllables in each line? They should find that the first two lines have 6 syllables, the third line 8 syllables, and the fourth line 6 syllables. Poets call this pattern "short measure" because there are so few beats in each line. (Be aware that Dickinson doesn't adhere strictly to the rules. The fourth and fifth stanzas have additional—or sometimes one too few—syllables in a few lines.)
  • Many hymns are in short measure. With your students, read or listen to a hymn, such as "Blessed [Blest] Be the Tie That Binds," available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library (also note that many of Dickinson's poems can be read to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"). You may need to play the clip a couple of times, so your students have a chance to count the syllables.
  • This would be a good time to talk to your students about why Dickinson might write in the same meter commonly found in hymns. You could mention that Dickinson would have been familiar with hymns from attending church services. What rhythms do your students hear in their environment? For example, how does contemporary music (rap, rock, etc.) affect the way we speak and write?
Activity 2. Image and Metaphor
  • Read the poem aloud again. Ask the students: What is this poem about? Be sure they understand that Dickinson is describing the physical qualities of a bird and its behavior-hopping, eating, flying, and so on.
  • If you have access to a computer lab, have the students explore Alexander Wilson, American Ornithologist, part of the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia website. If you don't have access to a computer lab, print out a few images for the students. Tell the students that Wilson painted in the early 1800s (just before Dickinson was born), and explain that these images provide a detailed record of the birds that could be found in America at that time. Ask the students to review the images and to describe what they see. Encourage them to think about the birds' shape, feathers, and features (eyes or beak, for example.). Questions they might consider include:
    • What would the bird feel like to touch?
    • Does the artist show movement? How would you describe this motion?
    • Do any of the images suggest sound? How would you describe the sound they would make?
  • Once the students have had plenty of time to study the images and you've discussed them as a class, give each student one copy of the Cluster Web PDF handout. Ask the students to write "bird" in the center circle and to fill in the circles around it with the words they would use to describe a bird. Then they should fill in the circles attached to those words with the next words that come to mind. For example, they could begin with "feather," which might lead to "light" and then "air." Reconvene the class and ask students to share some of the associations from their worksheet. What impressions and links are coming to the surface?
  • Now, read the poem again with your students and ask them how Dickinson describes a bird. Does Dickinson describe some of the same qualities they saw in the images and found through the brainstorming activity? Ask your students to think about how Dickinson uses words to describe the bird.
  • This should be a good segue into the concept of metaphor. Tell the students that a writer uses a metaphor when she compares two seemingly unlike things. This metaphor reveals something about the object or person. Point out to your students that they use and hear metaphors all the time: "My brother's room is a pig sty," or "All the world's a stage." Help them find the metaphors in the poem—most occur in the last three stanzas—and discuss how these phrases create images that help the reader to better understand the poem. You may want to focus on the passages listed below.
    • "He glanced with rapid eyes / That hurried all around": The eyes are treated like a creature, able to run around. Can you picture the movement of the bird's eyes? How does this image add to your experience of the line?
    • "They looked like frightened Beads": The eyes are compared to "beads." What do beads look like? Why might Dickinson compare the bird's eyes to beads? These "beads" are then given a human characteristic—the quality of being frightened. Can eyes be frightened? Does this mean the bird is frightened? Note that this is technically a simile, since the comparison uses the word "like."
    • "And he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home": Here Dickinson describes the motion of a bird spreading its wings, but now the wings become oars. Can you visualize the act of rowing? Does this motion make you think of flying? Dickinson compares the sky to the sea. What similarities are there between the two? Is flying through the sky a "softer" motion than rowing through the water? In what way?
    • "Butterflies … Leap, plashless as they swim": In this line, the bird is now a butterfly, and the butterflies become fish or dolphins jumping into the sea. Might flying be like swimming through the air? Why might butterflies be "plashless" (or splashless)? Do you make a splash when you leap through the air?
  • Now, to reinforce these ideas (and have some fun), have your students act out the poem together as a class. Begin with the first line: what would a bird look like as it "came down the Walk"? What is the birds' stance, attitude, or movement? Continue to the second and third lines, working your way through the poem. Encourage the students to discover what is happening in each line and to think about what they already know about how birds act. The last two stanzas will be most difficult for them. Help them to see how Dickinson compares the sky to an ocean. Remind them of what they learned about metaphors. For example, with "Too silver for a seam," students could focus on showing something "silver" or shining, or they could emphasize a smooth surface. When a bird travels through the air, it doesn't leave a path or "seam." So the air is like the ocean but, unlike in water, movement through the air leaves no trace. Likewise, students could show a sun for "off Banks of Noon" to emphasize that it's daytime. Instead of the butterflies being in the sea, somewhere off a coast line, they are in the sky, past the sun's noontime position. Remind students to think of Peter Pan: "Second star to the right."
Activity 3. Write a Poem
  • Tell you students that now they are going to be poets. Take them outside and give each student a copy of the Write a Poem! handout. Have them observe a living thing: a squirrel, a beetle, ants, etc — just preferably not a bird. As they watch their object, have them fill out the handout. Be sure they note how their animal or insect moves and how it reacts to its environment. As they're working, give each student another copy of the Web Cluster handout. The second part of the worksheet asks them to make a web cluster for their new object. By the end of the activity, students should be able to create a very brief story for their animal.
  • Now, gather everyone together back in your classroom. Reread the Dickinson poem as a class and review its meter. Here you should make students aware of the poem's rhyming scheme: ABCB. Ask the students to write a 2 stanza (or 8 line) poem for their animal using 2 metaphors and the same meter and rhyming scheme as in Dickinson's poem. They should use their completed handout and web cluster to guide them. Encourage the students to help one another count out syllables and find rhyming words.
  • Have the students share their poems with the class.


Ask students to submit a portfolio of their work from this lesson, including their two web clusters, Write a Poem! handout, and completed poem. Assess them based on the rubric below, granting point values as preferred.

  1. Student participated fully in all activities.
  2. Student contributed to class discussion.
  3. Student demonstrated an understanding of rhythm and meter.
  4. Web clusters show connections between objects/ideas.
  5. Write a Poem! handout shows careful observation of an animal/insect.
  6. Write a Poem! handout demonstrates an understanding of "metaphor."
  7. Story displays a synthesis of lessons learned.
  8. Poem uses 2 metaphors and appropriate rhythm and rhyme.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing
  • Writing skills
  • Julie Kachniasz (AL)