Always the Young Seekers: Carl Sandburg, The Early Years
Table of Contents
Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used
National Educational Standards
Student Learning Objectives
Background and Historical Context
Teacher Tips
Lesson Implementation Procedures
Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
Extension and Enrichment Activities
Site Visit
Charts, Figures and other Teacher Materials
Print Version

A. Title: Always the Young Seekers: Carl Sandburg, The Early Years
  • Developers:
  • John Hall and Steve Lipe, ArtSpace Charter School, Swannanoa, NC
  • Grade Level: 5th and 8th
  • Number of Sessions in the Lesson Unit Plan: 5 class periods (45 – 60 minutes)
    Lesson One: Intro to books (45 minutes)
    Lesson Two: Week 1 to Week 4: Daily reading groups (35 – 45 minutes per day, per group, three to four weeks) (1 class period)
    Lesson Three: Week 5: Intro to object activity (30 minutes)
    Lesson Four: Week 5: Sandburg objects tied to book - interpretive vignette (two 45 minute sessions to tie object to story and develop vignette, and one session to finalize present vignette)
    Lesson Five: Week 6: Develop own autobiography/timeline (three 40 minute sessions and homework)
    Lesson Six- Week 7 and 8: Build museum of timeline, creating 2D and 3D objects to represent events (eight 45 minute sessions)
    Lesson Seven- Week 9: Wrap up - write an “I Remember Poem” (60 minutes in class and homework)

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B. Overview of this Collection-Based Lesson Unit Plan
  • Park Name: Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site Flat Rock, North Carolina
  • Description:
    Theme – Young life of Carl Sandburg and how it shaped and influenced his writing. Carl Sandburg’s life is truly fascinating! His life and powerful words exemplify the spirit of America as our country is leaving its teen years and moving to adulthood. This unit focuses on Sandburg’s early life. As he is growing up in the late 1800s, America is as well. The objects from his life during this time are snapshots of this unique time in American history. This unit addresses several National Education Standards in language arts and math and has a strong American history focus that can be aligned with state social science educational objectives. Although it is a nine-week unit, teachers may not be able to devote nine weeks to this project. Teachers may choose to use some lessons and not others. For example, a teacher may decide to include the student timeline but not the student autobiography. He/she may decide to keep the student autobiography and omit the museum project. It is imperative, however, that the objects from Carl Sandburg’s life be used in the unit. Whichever sections one chooses to use, the point is for your students to experience the life of Sandburg through his words and the objects from his life, as well as deepen their awareness of themselves and how objects from their lives reflect these experiences. These are lesson plans and not study guides, therefore synopses and summaries are not included.
  • Essential Question:
    • How does our past shape who we are and what we wish to become?
    • How do objects from one’s life aid in “telling our story”?
    • How do objects from Carl Sandburg’s collection illuminate his early life and guide us in our own personal discovery?
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C. Museum Collections, Similar Items and other Materials Used in this Lesson Unit Plan
MUSEUM OBJECT [photos of objects in the Carl Sandburg Home NHS museum collections] SIMILAR OBJECTS [local items similar to museum objects] & OTHER MATERIALS Length of time
Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln
Sculptures Young Carl Sandburg
Train Ticket Jacket Patch
An object that represents teacher’s personal heritage (examples: family bible, grandfather’s walking stick, etc

Other materials:

  • Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet By Penelope Niven with poems and prose by Carl Sandburg
  • Chicago Poems By Carl Sandburg
Class set of books:
  • Always the Young Stranger By Carl Sandburg
  • or
  • Prairie-Town Boy By Carl Sandburg
  • (number of books depends upon size of reading groups)

Forms and Charts:
Art-making materials including varieties of paper, paints, markers, oil pastels, graph paper, foam board, adhesives, and 3-D sculptural materia


50 – 60 minutes
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D. National Educational Standards
Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.1 Reading for Perspective
Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the US and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillmen
NL-ENG.K-12.2 Understanding the Human Experience
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
NL-ENG.K-12.3 Evaluation Strategies
Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features.
NL-ENG-12.5 Communication strategies
Students adjust their use of spoken, written and visual language to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
Applying knowledge o Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions, media techniques, figurative language and genre to create, critique and discuss print and nonprint texts.
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills
Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes.


Math NM-NUM 5-8 Compute fluently and make reasonable estimates
Students develop, analyze and explain methods for solving problems involving proportions such as scaling and finding equivalent ratios. NM-MEA 3-8 Understand measurable attributes of objects, and the units, systems and processes of measurement Students will understand that measurements are approximations and how differences in units affect precision.
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E. Student Learning Objectives
Develop an understanding of Carl Sandburg’s early life and the early modern era of America by reading his autobiography and study of objects from his life.
    • Develop a deeper understanding of themselves through creation of student autobiographies, poems, and timelines.
    • Develop an understanding of the importance of objects as a reference to the histories of themselves and others (Sandburg)
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F. Background and Historical Context

This unit is built around the early years of Carl Sandburg after he had left home and before he got married.  It focuses on his formative years of traveling and “coming of age”, through his experiences on the road, in war, and in college.  Students will read his autobiography and early poetry, as they develop meaning and understanding of different objects from his home in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

“I was born on the prairie and the milk of its wheat, the red of its clover, the eyes of its women gave me a song and a slogan…” (Prairie, 1918)

He was born Carl August Sandburg on January 6, 1878, in a small three-room cottage in Galesburg, Illinois. Located southwest of Chicago, Galesburg was noted for its railroad industry, which attracted a broad immigrant population. He was the oldest son of Swedish immigrants, August and Clara Sandburg. August worked six days a week, ten hours a day at the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) railroad as a blacksmith’s helper, where his sledge hit anvil year-round with no vacation. Clara, known as “mama”, had an infectious smile shining with affection for her seven children, and she raised them with words of encouragement that urged them to “make something of themselves.” (p35, Park Handbook)

Galesburg had a large impact on the way Carl Sandburg looked at America. Many years later, in his autobiography Sandburg asked the question, “Did I know America, the United States, because of what I knew about Galesburg?” He believed there must be something important about a country to have attracted so many different types of people, but who all called themselves American.

Carl Sandburg’s first words were Swedish.  English came later, as well as a love of words and language, and this child of immigrant parents was determined to be known as an American.  When he was 7 years old, he changed his name from the very Swedish-sounding Carl to the very American-sounding Charles. Sandburg also developed a strong work ethic as a young boy helping his dad with household chores and working odd jobs throughout his childhood. He graduated from the 8th grade and did not attend high school. An economic down-turn in the 1890s caused the CB&Q to cut his dad’s wages.  Charles was needed to supplement the family’s income. He was now, more than ever before, a child laborer working a variety of jobs that ranged from barber shop porter to milk deliverer.

“Throughout his childhood, Charlie slept to the pulsing rhythms of the trains coming and going through the prairie night. He sometimes amused himself at the depot watching trains bound to and from far places. He idled with hoboes and tramps who traveled furtively on the rods or the treacherous tops of freights and passenger cars…To Charlie, the railroad meant adventure, mystery, and possibility.” (p7-8, Niven)

Restless and eager for adventure, he embarked on a hobo journey in June of 1897. He traveled west by rail from Galesburg and worked from June to October in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. He threshed wheat, harvested hay, washed dishes, worked on a railroad gang, and chopped wood. He was a seeker and an observer, stating in his autobiography,  “What had the trip done to me? I couldn’t say. It had changed me… Away deep in my heart now I had hope as never before. Struggles lay ahead, I was sure, but whatever they were I would not be afraid of them.”

The Road and the End
I shall foot it
Down the roadway in the dusk,
Where the shapes of hunger wander
And the fugitives of pain go by…

…Regret shall be the gravel under foot…

The dust of the traveled road
Shall touch my hands and face.

                        Chicago Poems, 1916

Summoning his new courage, he enlisted on April 26, 1898 in Company C, Sixth Infantry Regiment of Illinois Volunteers to fight for his country in the Spanish-American War. According to Sandburg… “the war in Porto Rico, while not bloody, was a dirty and lousy affair while it lasted.” The biggest challenges were the tropical climate of Puerto Rico, the mosquitoes that carried malaria, and the woolen Civil War era uniforms.

Sandburg returned home in September, 1898 and enrolled in Lombard College of Galesburg. Here he met Professor Phillip Green Wright, one of the three people he would later call one of the greatest influences of his life.  He began to write seriously, and was elected editor-in-chief of the college newspaper.  He also became editor of the Lombard Review, and was one of the editors of the school yearbook, The Cannibal.  After four years of college however, he had dabbled in so many areas of study that he did not have enough credits in any one area to graduate with a degree.  He left college in the spring semester of his senior year (p37-38, Park Handbook). The passions he had nurtured while in college, studying people and events, researching and writing, were then further nurtured by the life experiences ahead of him.
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G. Vocabulary

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg
“The Shovel Man”
jackies – sailors
“Road and the End”

Additional vocabulary:

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H. Teacher Tips
  • Download and laminate color prints of the museum objects used in the unit plan
  • Precut the foam board for the museum project to desired size (two sheets of graph paper)
  • Give yourself time to pre-read any materials (Sandburg’s autobiography, poems and background information) used in these lessons.
  • Don’t be overwhelmed by the scope of this unit!  Don’t feel that everything has to be accomplished at the same time.  Remember – this takes place over a nine-week period. Once again, you may choose to trim activities to fit your time constraints.
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I. Lesson Implementation Procedures

Lesson One: Introduction to Carl Sandburg and Always the Young Strangers (Week one)

Students will…
  • Develop definitions of listed words (see below).
  • Discover the early life of Carl Sandburg through Penelope Niven’s book Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet which combines biography with poems and prose.
  • Analyze and re-imagine “Ever a Seeker” by Carl Sandburg, placing oneself in the poem.

  1. Present the essential question that will guide student interactive learning and research.  Post the question on a large banner at the front of the classroom. (How does our past shape who we are and what we wish to become? How do objects from one’s life aid in “telling our story”?)
  2. On a whiteboard, write the following words: Vagabond, Soldier, Journalist, Minstrel, Storyteller, Dreamer, Poet, Historian. As a class, discuss and define each of the words.
  3. The book Carl Sandburg:  Adventures of a Poet is designed to give background, biography type information about Carl Sandburg and then pair that information with a poem or prose written by Sandburg.  Each of the pairings has a title.  Using the book Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet, read and summarize the passage in the book that coincides with the above words, i.e. Vagabond… for the students, read them the related poem, and show the related pictures from the book.  One way to show the pictures could be using an ELMO type projector.  (Once you see the book, you will understand!  Further, this is a beautifully illustrated book.) This is the students’ introduction to Carl Sandburg.
  4. Finish the presentation and readings with the “Historian” section.  Write the poem “Ever A Seeker” on the board, and read it to them.  Have the students copy the poem, but have him/her substitute his/her name for “America”, each time it comes up.  After copying the poem, with his/her name inserted, read the poem to a partner, and listen to the partner read his/her poem.  Keep the sheet of paper with the poem for future reference.

Lesson Two: Discovering Carl Sandburg’s early life (Week one through four)

Students will…
  • Read aloud either Prairie-Town Boy or Always The Young Strangers (depending on grade level and teacher choice) in groups
  • Describe basic story elements (protagonist, antagonist(s), POV, theme, conflict, climax, resolution)
  • Identify the characteristics of an autobiography/memoir
  • Read related poems from Sandburg’s Chicago Poems and compare/contrast
  • Identify the characteristics of a poem
  • Develop vocabulary list w/definitions and activities

  1. Create reading groups and review your (teacher’s) classroom reading guidelines.
  2. Reading groups read autobiography (30 – 45 minute sessions?)  The length of time to read each day may need to be tweaked depending on student pace of reading for each group.  To provide structure a guide sheet may be useful.  A sample has been provided, Carl Sandburg Guided Reading Notes.  Include mini-lessons on characteristics of autobiography and poetry as needed to identify story elements. (For example, writing an autobiography as opposed to a biography – 1st person as opposed to 3rd person.)
  3. Create vocabulary lists from autobiography and poems. This may be teacher or student generated.
  4. Activities may include: (Have the vocabulary list posted at the front of the class to aid in these activities)
    • Dictionary definitions
    • Using vocabulary in correct context (written exercises)
    • Using vocabulary in correct context (oral exercises)
    • Pictionary (Students draw a representation of the word on the board as others try to guess the correct answer.)
    • Pantomime (Students act out a word from the list as others try to guess which one it is.  No talking or sound effects allowed!)
  5. Whole class discussion and analysis of Chicago Poems (one or two poems per week)
    • “The Shovel Man”
    • “Mamie”
    • “Iron”
    • “The Road and the End”
    • “Shirt”
    • “Child Moon”

Lesson Three: “How to Read an Object” (Week five)

Students will…
  • Examine an object, looking for specific characteristics
  • Demonstrate understanding of analytical process through completion of  “How to read an object” chart
  • Communicate clearly findings to group and class members

  • Use the object CARL 226 (sculpture of man and woman).  Print out the image of the museum object.
  • Bring in a personal sculpture object that represents personal past. Do not give the group any information about the object.
  • Divide class into two groups; one group analyzes the photograph of object (without the caption), and the other group analyzes the personal object from the teacher, each using a ‘How to Read an Object” chart.
  • Have groups write up their responses on the ‘How to Read an Object’ chart, and share responses with the whole class.
  • Share the caption from object CARL 226 with the class, and information about the personal object, and compare and contrast with original class responses/observations. Discuss with class how “first impressions” can be very misleading, and how it is necessary to keep an open mind when looking at historical objects, and change opinions as information becomes available.

Lesson Four: Objects and Carl Sandburg (Week five)

Students will…

  1. Create performance groups and outline expectations, referring to assessment rubric (see attachment 1 ). (Each group only uses one object.  It is not necessary for all objects to be used.)
  2. Students read information about the Sandburg objects and locate the section in Always the Young Stranger/Prairie-Town Boy which corresponds with the object. (Example: Swedish immigrant object connects with Sandburg’s immigrant parents and his early childhood.  Students would choose a specific scene from this section to dramatize.)
  3. Students create a vignette (short skit) from the section of the autobiography, write it in script form and rehearse.  For example, a vignette based on his immigrant parents might include a scene with Father only speaking Swedish in the house.  Carl feels alienated from his friends, so he decides to change his name to Charlie.  This is a defining moment in the young Sandburg’s life.  To continue, groups must use the object in the drama.  (Example: Using the Swedish immigrant object, the “character” of Carl would confide to a friend his frustration that only Swedish was spoken at home – while referring to or “gazing at” the photo of the carvings.)
  4. Groups present and explain the object to the class, then perform the vignette.

Lesson Five: Developing an autobiography timeline (Week six)

Students will…
  • Identify significant events in their own lives and identify objects that correlate with these events.
  • Create a timeline using poster board to illustrate their lives and project into their futures. 
  • Write their autobiography, emphasizing significant events and describing objects that correlate with these events.  Included in this autobiography is a projection into the future ten and twenty years.  What significant events will possibly take place in their lives?  Students have the opportunity to project, predict and elucidate their hopes for their future lives.
  • Revise and edit autobiography
  • Present timeline and autobiography highlights to class.

  1. Outline expectations for students’ timeline and autobiography, referring to the assessment rubric (see attachment 1). Important:  Make sure you have the Sandburg objects posted conspicuously in the classroom and refer to them as you explain this chapter of the project.
  2. For this lesson, the age groups should be Early years (age 0 – 5 years old) as one event, and then one event per grade level (Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and so on to present grade level), and a 10 year “in the future” and a 20 year “in the future” event.
  3. Students first write down an event per age group (see above), and then decide upon an object to represent that event.
  4. Using poster board, art supplies and photographs from home, students create their timelines.  Encourage students to think symbolically as they create their design.  Remind students that life is a journey, a voyage.  Point out that Sandburg was a traveler, and loved trains.  Encourage students to imagine their lives as a journey. Their timelines could be a train track and they are the engine, a river and they are the ship, a highway and they are the vehicle!  Illustrations and photographs of people and objects (similar to the Sandburg objects) should be included on the timeline.  As they look to the future sections of the timeline (10 years from now, 20 years from now), inspire your students to use this timeline to focus on their hopes and wishes for their futures.  What do they dream of becoming? 
  5. Using the timeline as a guide, students will write, then revise an autobiography. 
  6. Students will present timelines to the class, along with highlights from their autobiographies.  Students may also bring in objects that they mentioned in their writing (a beloved stuffed animal, a trophy, etc.)

Lesson Six: Creating a Personal Museum. (Week seven and eight)


Students will…
  • Create 2 and 3 dimensional objects representing events in personal life.
  • Design and build a scale museum to showcase objects created.
  • Create a brochure explaining the meaning of each object in the museum.

  1. After creating timeline (see previous lesson), distribute Museum Project Requirements handout (see attachment 3).  Go over requirements with students.
  2. Distribute graph paper.  Have students tape two sheets of graph paper.  This will become the floor plan for the museum.  Demonstrate how to draw a floor plan, stressing scale (one square equals two feet). Remind the students that a line represents a wall (looking down from the top, and that the walls will be made out of paper (cut to scale), and that the corners will be reinforced with toothpicks (glued to the paper), and pressed into the foam board.
  3. Assist the students as needed in designing the floor plan for the museum, referring to the guidelines as they work, and their timelines to remind them of how many rooms to design. Remind them of the requirements of one room for each object, and including doors, hallways, and other aspects outlined in the handout, as well as leaving room to walk around the objects.
  4. After designing the floor plan, have students create objects to represent each event on their timelines. (For example, if a student had visited an amusement park, a painting of a roller coaster car could be a 2 dimensional object, or a matchbox decorated so it looks like a roller coaster car could be a 3 dimensional object).  Note – objects must fit into rooms, so have students place objects on floor plans as they design and create objects.
  5. After creating objects, build the museum (easiest way is to glue the graph paper onto foam board, and build museum walls actually on the floor plan).  Place objects into the finished rooms.
  6. Finish project by having students create a brochure, which explains the significance of each object.  Note-have Sandburg objects hanging on walls, so that students can refer to descriptions for a better understanding of information that needs to be included in the brochure.

Lesson Seven:  Wrap Up Activity and Discussion (Week nine)


Students will…
  • Create, revise and edit a poem of remembrance
  • Collaborate with their parents/grandparents to extend this poem to include their memories as well.
  • Present poem to class orally.


  1. Introduce activity by reading aloud the poem “Shirt” (page 56, Chicago Poems).  Discuss the imagery in the poem and guide students toward how they may utilize images of events from their autobiographies as they create their poems.
  2. Students write, revise and edit a poem of remembrance.  Each stanza (three in all) should begin with the words “I remember…”
    • Stanza one should focus on family members, including extended family. 
    • Stanza two should focus on “things” or objects from students’ lives. 
    • Stanza three should focus on significant (or everyday) events from their lives.
  3. Students will take their poems home and share it with their families.  A parent (or guardian) will create their own “I remember” poem using the same format. The poem should be documented in whatever way possible. Perhaps it is written down by the student as the parent speaks or it is written down by the parent, or any other method agreed upon. If possible, a grandparent or great-grandparent will also contribute an “I remember” poem.  If parents/guardians do not speak English fluently (like Sandburg’s father), or at all, then perhaps the student may translate for them.  If parents/guardians are not able or willing to participate, students may choose a significant adult in their lives and ask them to contribute to their project with an “I remember” poem.  Bottom line – students’ collection of “I remember” poems include one from an adult or person older than themselves.
  4. This “family” of poems will be collected and presented to the class.  You may decide to hold an “I remember” family night in which families will gather (with food of course) and share these poems. 
J. Evaluation/Assessment for Measurable Results
Rubrics: [Back to top]
K. Extension and Enrichment Activities
Janet Sandburg’s note cards

Carl Sandburg Museum object, CARL 111685: “Kid Finish Cambridge Blue” note card style stationary, envelopes, first class stamps
Carl Sandburg lived 89 years, from 1878 to 1967.  During his lifetime methods of communication changed radically.  When he was a child, people communicated only through letters, (see museum object) telegrams or calling cards.  By the time he died, people were not only using letters and telegrams, but also ham radios and telephones. The object of this activity is to have students explore the way communication has changed and is changing in a single person’s lifetime.  Once students discover how ways of communication changed during Sandburg’s lifetime, have them identify the many new ways we communicate now and have them predict the changes to communication methods in the next sixty years! 

Essential Questions:
How did communication methods change during the lifetime of Carl Sandburg?
How will communication methods change during our lifetimes?

Higher level thinking questions:
What is communication?
What are the difficulties of communication?

Students will:
  • Analyze communication methods during the lifetime of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967).
  • Compare/contrast those communication methods with current methods.
  • Predict future methods of communication.
  • Evaluate the “quality” of communication methods.
  1. Show students museum object (note cards).  You may also wish to bring a set of note cards from your personal stash.
  2. Have students brainstorm different types of correspondence people send through the mail.
  3. Explain how calling cards, telegrams and early telephone systems worked.
  4. Have students analyze (through discussion) these methods of communication, determining the different impacts each type made upon sender/receiver.
  5. Have students brainstorm current ways we communicate with one another and compare/contrast them with those methods during Sandburg’s time. 
  6. Have student groups create predictions of future methods of communication (within next sixty years) and present predictions to class.
  7. Have students discuss the qualities of these different types of communication. (personal, impersonal, clear communication vs. easily misinterpreted methods, most efficient, most inefficient, etc.)
  8. Culminating activity:  Have students write an actual letter to a friend or family member, address an envelope and put a stamp on it!  Teacher will mail.

Follow up:  Students will discover and share with class how the recipient of the letter reacted upon receiving the letter.

Carl Sandburg’s stereographs

Use these copies of stereographic slides sold by Sandburg as he worked his way through college, have the students study the pictures shown:

CARL 63050AF13, CARL 63050AF51, CARL 63841N45, CARL 63841N73

Some possible guiding questions:
  • Research the locations to discover if there have been any changes since the picture was taken.
  • What are the stereotypes presented in the pictures?
  • What is the focus in each of the pictures?

Students can then create their own set of “stereographs” on a topic of their choice, and develop a “sales pitch” to interest another class in buying a set of these slides.

Museum Project Extension
After creating objects for museum, students can create a TV spot to advertise museum, captions for each of the objects, and/or a script for a docent guiding people through the museum.

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L. Resources

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site Middle School Curriculum guide, National Park Service: 2000.

Niven, Penelope, Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet. Harcourt, Inc., San Diego: 2003
Sandburg, Carl, Always the Young Strangers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, New York: 1980.
Sandburg, Carl, Chicago Poems. Dover Publications, New York: 1994.
Sandburg, Carl, Prairie-Town Boy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, New York: 1952.
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M. Site Visit
Visit the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site virtual exhibit at, and the home in Flat Rock, NC
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N. Charts, figures and other Teacher Materials
Click here to download supplemental documents.