Life, Death, Dirt and Walt Whitman

Warm-up: Discussing the Theme

1. Before passing out the poem, begin by compiling a list of words from the students that they associate with the word “compost.” Some words that might come to mind include: decay, smelly, life, death, earth, rebirth, dirt, food, garbage, recycling, worm, biodegradable, pile.  Leave this list up on the board for later reference.


Activity One: Introduce Poem

1.Background Information: Walt Whitman, (1819-1892)

In order to gain perspective, your students should have a background of knowledge about Walt Whitman. If possible, provide a few of his poems for the students to read on their own before the lesson begins.

Walt Whitman was born in Long Island, New York and is known as one of America’s greatest poets. Although his poems are usually not rhymed or metered, they are full of allusions to song.  His most famous poem is called “Song of Myself” (from his most famous collection, Leaves of Grass) and is full of lyrical praises of humanity. Whitman wrote poetry full of love for America, its land, its democracy and government and the diversity of its peoples. His poetry was often very sensual, including paeans of praise to the body, in all its forms (Whitman was rumored to have had a homosexual relationship in 1959). One of his most famous poems is Oh Captain, My Captain, a tribute to Abraham Lincoln. He included themes that reflected his love for the natural world (especially American landscapes) that he developed early in his childhood. 

2.Hand out Reproducible #1: “This Compost” to students. Have them read through it once silently to themselves all the way through without stopping. Have them read it a second time, highlighting and marking the poem with literary perspectives they know.

3.Solicit a student volunteer(s) to read the poem out loud to the class.


Activity Two: Reflection and Discussion

1. Talk to your students briefly about some of the key ideas and themes from the poem (but don’t give away too much!).

2. PassoutReproducible #2: Whitman Writing Reflection Questions. Allow students enough time to individually complete short reflection questions.

3. Once all students have completely answered the questions, facilitate a discussion with the class, allowing students a chance to share their thoughts and ideas about the poem.


Wrap Up:  Discussion

1. Discuss with students what they have learned about composting through Whitman’s poem and how literature can be used as a medium for encouraging activism.

2. Ask students if they would consider starting their own compost pile, either at school or home, and encourage them to do more research on the topic and share what they learn with family and friends.


Extension: Writing and Composting

1. A good essay topic might be to write a 3-5 page essay demonstrating how Whitman’s use of the themes of death and life encompass the decay and rebirth that exist within a compost pile. As part of the assignment, students should research more about composting.  They should compare facts about the decomposition and renewal process of compost, to language use and word choice in “This Compost.”

2. Start composting! After researching various options (including vermicomposting, compost bins, compost turners, compost piles, etc.) and find the one that will work best for you and your students. Consider location (indoor vs. outdoor), aeration, maintenance, what types of materials you will be composting, and what you will do with the composted matter.



At the completion of this lesson, students will have a better understanding of this poem and of composting.   They will have a greater understanding of Walt Whitman and his poetry.  The class will also see growth in their vocabulary and comprehension of composting.