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2019 Post #24 -- Reading and Writing Outdoors

by Sarah Mulhern Gross

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” is one of my favorite poems to share with students. It’s one of Oliver’s best-known and most-quoted poems and has been included in a few of her anthologies. It strikes a chord with many high school students as they are beginning to think about their lives beyond high school. It’s also a great way to get students to slow down and observe nature for a few minutes.

Begin by giving students a copy of the poem and let them read along as they listen to Mary Oliver read it. I like to take my students outside for this activity, so I use my cell phone to share the audio. Ask your students to mark the phrases or lines that strike them in any way while they read the poem. After students have read the poem and listened to Oliver read it, have a brief discussion. I always point out to students that “The Summer Day” sounds like a prayer to me, and this makes sense because Oliver frequently talked about how the forest was her church. Ask students what their “church” might be. Where do they feel spiritual? Where do they feel safe and at peace?

After a brief discussion, give students a few minutes to write. Ask them to let the sights and sounds of the outdoors guide their writing as they try to answer the question “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I don’t give my students too many guidelines here as I just want them to write. Their response can be in prose or poetry form, and if they really get stuck I encourage them to sketch.

You could easily extend this activity into a full lesson by having students choose something outside (a tree, a blade of grass, a bird, a bug, etc) and center their response around it like Oliver centers her poem around the grasshopper. They could spend 10-15 minutes making observations about what they see, hear, smell, feel and (maybe?) taste while observing their species of choice. Oliver’s poem can serve as a mentor for their response to the question in her final line.

For more on Mary Oliver, check out this excellent New Yorker piece: Mary Oliver Helped Us Stay Amazed

For a brief Go Poems idea for Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" click here.

Further reading:

Sarah Gross is one of the co-organizers of NerdCampNJ. She teaches in central New Jersey and loves spending time outdoors.


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