The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by Andrew Kenen and Diane Seskes, Kenston High School, Bainbridge Township, OH


What are the advantages and disadvantages of conforming to society’s expectations? Adolescents strive to answer this question. By studying writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, inventors, and other creative minds, students will see how others have answered this question.


The students will be able to:

  1. Read and analyze selections by Emerson, Thoreau, Tyler, Frost, and Oates relating to conformity and nonconformity;
  2. Listen and analyze selected songs relating to conformity and nonconformity;
  3. Write in response to prompts in journal format;
  4. Create a poster representing interpretations of quotations on conformity;
  5. Create a drawing showing the literal and figurative interpretation of an extended metaphor;
  6. Research creative people to understand how they deal with conformity issues;
  7. Write and present a paper showing how a creative person has responded to the issue of conformity vs. nonconformity.


Suggested for secondary English students. This would work well in a unit on Transcendentalism.

Time Frame

3-5 class periods. The research component may require 5 or more class periods depending upon the time allowed in class for accessing the Internet and the writing process. The time needed for sharing of the research will be determined by the class size.


Copies of Ralph Waldo Emerson “Self-Reliance;” copies of Walden by Henry David Thoreau or at least a copy of the Conclusion of Walden; copies of “Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler; copies of “Journey” by Joyce Carol Oates; copies of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost; copies of lyrics of selected songs; CD’s/tapes/records of selected songs; sound system; access to the Internet and research facilities.



  1. Introduce Emerson. Read excerpts from “Self-Reliance.” Focus the discussion on Emerson’s belief in individualism. Discussion should include an analysis of some of his key concepts and infamous quotations including the following:
    • “Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
    • “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
    • “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”
    • “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
    • “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
  2. Introduce Thoreau. Read the Conclusion of Walden. Discuss the concept of conformity and nonconformity in relation to quotes. Include background on Thoreau’s nonconformity in going into the woods to live. Focus the discuss upon the most commonly quoted portions of this work:
    • “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
  3. Have students write in their journals in response to the following prompt: What are the advantages and disadvantages to conforming to society’s expectations? Allow at least 15 minutes for the writing. Then go around the room allowing every person to read all or a portion of the writing. Do not allow comments or questions at this time. The oral sharing is for listening to the diversity in responses.
  4. Listen to “Different Drum” by Linda Ronstadt with The Stone Poneys. Provide copies of the lyrics.
  5. Discuss the use of Thoreau’s quote in the song “Different Drum.” How is the quote used and interpreted? Is this interpretation in agreement with Thoreau?
  6. Read Anne Tyler’s short story “Teenage Wasteland.” This is a contemporary story involving an adolescent boy, Donny, who goes through changes which lead to his eventual running away. Within the story the following quote is used:
    • “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the school was in on it. Any kid that marches to a different drummer, why, they’d just love an excuse to get rid of him”
    The discussion of this story should focus upon the changes that occur to Donny as well as the reactions by his parents, his sister, his tutor, and the school. Many students will identify and empathize with Donny while others will empathize with the parents. Also discuss the use of Thoreau’s “different drummer” concept. How has his quote been adapted? Discussion may also focus upon the viewpoint of schools towards conformity and nonconformity.
  7. Listen to the song “Baba O’Riley” by Pete Townshend. Provide lyrics for the students. This song is mentioned in the short story as “Teenage Wasteland.” It is also used as the title to Anne Tyler’s short story. Discuss the connection between the song and the short story. What viewpoint does this song represent? How does the song fit the short story?
  8. Now listen to “My Generation” by Pete Townshend. Provide lyrics. Discuss the message of this song. How do the lyrics represent each succeeding generation? Do the lyrics apply to the present generation? How does each generation view conformity and nonconformity? What are some of the current fads that represent conformity and nonconformity?
  9. Provide copies of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Read this aloud. Discussion should focus upon the concept of conformity and nonconformity. Robert Frost’s poem is a metaphor for the decisions and choices in life. Have students explain the metaphor. Focus the discussion on the final stanza:
    • “I shall be telling this with a sigh
      Somewhere ages and ages hence:
      Two road diverged in a wood, and I--
      I took the one less traveled by,
      and that has made all the difference.”
  10. In their journals, ask students to list three difficult choices they have made. Select on of these choices and freewrite on why this was so difficult. Think about the option that was not chosen and then make a list tabulating the imaginary chain of consequences that might have followed if the other alternative would have been chosen. Draft a description of the person who might have evolved had the other path been chosen.
  11. Read Joyce Carol Oates’ extended metaphor “Journey.” This story may be read on two levels--literal and figurative. On the literal level, this is a person’s journey in a car and on foot toward a city. On the figurative level, this represents a person’s journey through life making multiple decisions on the way.
  12. After the students have read Oates’ “Journey” have them draw a literal and figurative representation of the story. The literal drawing will be a road map. The figurative drawing will be a symbolic, abstract depiction of the journey through life. Have the students share and explain their drawings.
  13. Listen to the song “Who You Are” by Pearl Jam. Provide lyrics. After listening to the song, discuss the meaning--especially the last few lines:
    • “So I would say you’ve got a part
      What’s your part
      Who you are
      You are who
      Who you are.”
    Discussion should focus on making meaning of Pearl Jam’s symbols and references. Discuss the reference to “transcendental consequence.” How do you “transcend Where we are?” What does Pearl Jam have to offer on the concept of conformity and nonconformity? What is their advice?
  14. Assign a creative poster to students at this time. They are to select a one or two-line quote from any of the writers or performers studied. The quote should represent a viewpoint on conformity or nonconformity. The poster will visually include the quote and a representation of the meaning of the quote. Have students share their posters and place them around the room to remind the students of the differing perspectives.
  15. Assign a research project requiring students to select an individual whose life has addressed the conformity vs. nonconformity issue. Students should select an individual in whom they are interested. Students should be encouraged to look at those creative minds in the areas of science, math, writing, music, art, photography, medicine and computers. Allow freedom in their selections.
  16. Focus the research on several key ideas:
    • What is this individual’s special creative talent?
    • How has this individual been accepted in society?
    • How has society influenced this particular individual?
    • In what areas of life does this individual conform?
    • In what areas of life does this individual non-conform?
    • Does this particular individual have any advice for society?
  17. After the students have completed their research, assign a paper and presentation. Have the students present their findings incorporating examples of the selected creative individual’s work, i.e. show an artist’s painting; listen to a musician’s song; share the scientist’s invention.


There are several assessments built into this lesson. Students may be evaluated on their posters depicting one-line philosograms. Focus areas may include the visual representation of the quote and the oral explanation of the quote.

The research paper and presentation is a culminating assessment. The focus areas may include the content focused upon the questions in #16, the structure and organization of the paper, and the presentation of the individual’s work.

Selected Recordings

“Different Drum” recorded by Linda Ronstadt with The Stone Poneys (Greatest Hits, Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch Records, 1976); lyrics and music by Mike Nesmith.

“Baba O’Riley” recorded by The Who (Who’s Next, MCA Records, 1971); lyrics and music by Pete Townshend.

“My Generation” recorded by The Who (Who’s Greatest Hits, MCA Records, 1983); lyrics and music by Pete Townshend.

“Who You Are” recorded by Pearl Jam (No Code, Epic, 1996); lyrics and music by Pearl Jam.

Enrichment/Additional Resources

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Prentice Hall Literature--The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Everyday Creative Writing--Panning for Gold in the Kitchen Sink. Illinois: NTC Publishing Group, 1996.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Journey.” Prentice Hall Literature--The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Signet Books, 1960.

Tyler, Anne. “Teenage Wasteland.” Coming of Age--Short Stories About Youth and Adolescence. Illinois: National Textbook Company, 1995.