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A Teacher's Guide

Henry Builds a Cabin


Henry David Thoreau advised us all to "simplify, simplify." He wrote, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." He lived his life according to this philosophy, and nowhere is this more clear than in the cabin he built.

Thoreau wanted a quiet place to live where he could enjoy and keep a journal about the wildlife and the outdoors. He built a simple cabin with just enough room for him to be comfortable. What kind of house would your students build? Would it have all the modern conveniences or just the bare necessities? Would it be bigger than their neighbor's house or just big enough to suit their needs? Would they want to stay inside most of the day or spend most of their time outdoors? Discuss what defines a house with your students and why Thoreau built his modest cabin. Then have your students design a house that is just right for them. When they finish, have them present and explain their designs to the class and discuss how Thoreau would react to their houses.

What was it like for Thoreau to live in a one-room house? Move the classroom furniture to the sides of the room. Measure a ten-by-fifteen-foot space and mark the floor with masking tape to replicate the size of Thoreau's cabin. Using newspaper and tape, indicate where a table, a writing desk, three chairs, and Thoreau's bed would go, as this is what filled his house. Have your students discuss the following questions: How many friends could Thoreau entertain? Did he spend a lot of time inside? What seems to be missing from his house?

Thoreau built his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond in 1845 for $28.12. Could a house be built for the same price now? What could $28.12 buy today? With your students, put a list together of some of the materials needed to build a house. Then go to your local building supply store and figure out a cost estimate. From the list, have your students calculate what they could purchase for $28.12.

Integrate the Henry books into your math curriculum. Some problems to solve:
    • Thoreau's house was ten by fifteen feet. If he started at one end and walked around the outside of the house, how far would he have walked?

    • If the floorboards for Thoreau's house were each six–inches wide and ten–feet long, how many boards would he need to cover the floor? How many boards would he need if they were twelve–inches wide?

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