The Internet TESL Journal

A Lesson Plan for ESL/EFL Students Using an Emily Dickinson Poem

Viorica Condrat
cinodira {[at]}
Alecu Russo State University of Bălţi (Moldova)
Poetry can be of great help in stimulating the students’ creative thinking as well as in enhancing their communicative skills. The teacher should think of how to turn both the reading of the poem and its understanding into an interactive activity which would involve the students in meaningful discussions.


Modern approaches to teaching English as a foreign language are designed to actively involve the students in the process of learning so that the primary goal of acquiring communicative competence is achieved. Thus, the teacher’s main task is to organize the English classes in such a way that they are more interactive.

Poetry enlivens the lesson by offering a new, unexpected perspective on the English language. Before selecting a poem which could help reinforce some grammatical topic in an interactive way the teacher should take into consideration several aspects, such as: The following lesson plan might be of use while focusing on the indefinite pronouns. The lesson does not overtly state the grammatical topic. Yet, students will be encouraged to apply the indefinite pronouns in their interaction. As to the selected poem, Emily Dickenson’s "I’m Nobody" (See Appendix.), it gives the opportunity to see another way of perceiving one’s identity. This might lead to the students’ reconsideration of their own identity. The students will also learn some basic information about the author of the poem, about her values and ideas.





Warm-up: Who are you?

  1. Write on the blackboard the question: “Who are you?”.
  2. Ask your students to define themselves in terms of the indefinite pronouns and explain why they have chosen namely that pronoun (e.g. I’m somebody because I’m a human being).
  3. Let them realize what the indefinite pronouns stand for.


Activity 1

  1. Divide the students into pairs.
  2. Distribute to each pair the scrambled lines of the poem so that they don’t see them.
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell! To tell your name the livelong day
Are you nobody, too? How dreary to be somebody!
I'm nobody! Who are you? They'd banish us, you know.
To an admiring bog! How public, like a frog
  1. Ask each pair to pick up two lines and imagine a situation where they can use it in a conversation.
  2. Tell them to act it out.

Activity 2

  1. Ask the students to look at the lines again. Group those who have picked up the same lines together.
  2. Challenge them to guess what the poem might be about.
  3. Invite a representative from each group to write the hypothetical themes at the blackboard.


Activity 1

  1. Ask the groups to unscramble the lines.
  2. Tell them to read their versions.
  3. Give them the original version and discuss it. Ask them if they agree with what the author says. Dwell upon the “Somebody/Nobody” interplay in the poem.

Activity 2

  1. Let them decide in groups what the best way to read the poem is (for example, should they be serious, careless, scornful, funny, etc. while reading it?).
  2. Ask them to read the poem in the chosen way.

Activity 3

  1. Divide the students into pairs again and ask them to do the following assignment.
Replace the words in italic with their antonyms and speak about the character's personality. Is she 'nobody' or 'sombody'?

The Story of Nobody

Once upon a time, there lived an old girl in Amherst, Massachusetts. She came from an unknown family, who had been uninvolved in the political life of the country. She chose the role of a recluse, basically always leaving her hometown. Her public life still remains a solved mystery. That is why so many assertions about her personality have appeared ever since.

She is thought to have been desperately in love with the unhappily married Reverend Charles Wadsworth. This love inspired her to stop writing poetry, though most of her poems were published posthumously. Understood by others, she was thought an eccentric for talking to other people through notes and letters and accepting to see everybody. Her predilection to dress in black was also believed an oddity.

Her unprolific work generated a lot of controversies at the beginning. The last publication underwent minor changes. It was criticized a lot. In 1955 her changed poems were published. Then she was recognized as America’s most unoriginal poet, the one who heralded modernism. And her memory remained alive ever after.

  1. Disclose the poet's identity (add the details you think are most significant in Emily Dickinson's life)
  2. Ask them if the above story helps them better understand the poem.
  3. Draw their attention to what they have previously put down at the blackboard and see if their suppositions were correct. Let them think of the new ones.


  1. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of being “Somebody” and then of being “Nobody”.
  2. Organize a mini-debate. Divide the class in two. One of the groups will have to find arguments to the statement: “One should always aspire to be Somebody” whereas the other to the affirmation: “Sometimes it is good to be Nobody”.
  3. Invite the spokespeople of the groups to come in front of the class and defend their position. Let the other students decide who is the most persuasive of the two.
  4. At the end ask each student to say one line they memorized from the poem.
  5. Come back to the question you asked your students at the beginning of the lesson: “Who are you?”. See if their answers differ.

Suggestions for Home Assignment

  1. You could challenge your students to look for other poems/songs where the authors use indefinite pronouns. Ask the students to compare them. (There is for example Langston Hugh’s poem “To Be Somebody”)
  2. Let them make a top ten list of “People Who Strived to Be Somebody” and say what their accomplishments are.
  3. Ask them to write a page in a diary under the heading “I’m Somebody’ or “I’m Nobody”.



I'm Nobody

By Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), Complete Poems (1924)

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Useful Link

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 3, March 2010