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James Whitcomb Riley: Hoosier Poet


Purpose of Lesson: This lesson (1) introduces students to one 19th- century Indiana poet and a selection of his poems and (2) helps students understand the role authors and poets had in providing entertainment for the public in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Objectives: At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Briefly describe James Whitcomb Riley as "The Hoosier Poet"
  • Identify and describe some of the themes of Riley's poetry

Correlation to Indiana Standards (for Fourth Grade Social Studies)

Social Studies

4.1.15 Using primary source and secondary source materials, generate questions, seek answers, and write brief comments about an event in Indiana history.

4.5.5 Describe the role of Indiana artists in American visual arts, literature, music, drama and theater.


4.1.1 Read aloud grade-level-appropriate literary texts with fluency and accuracy and with appropriate timing, changes in voice, and expression.

4.7.3 Identify how language usage (sayings and expressions) reflects regions and cultures.

Historical and Methodological Context for the Lesson:

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916) is accepted as the “Hoosier poet,” not only because Indiana was his birthplace, but also because the vocabulary and cadence of many of his poems realistically reproduce the dialect of the region. His poetry speaks of nature, rural life, and, especially, the experiences of childhood—themes that regularly drew crowds to Riley's rather theatric public recitations.

This first part of this lesson introduces recitations as popular forms of private and public entertainment during the late 19th century. Friends and relatives might be invited into a home for a casual evening of reading aloud from books of literature or poetry, or for a recitation of some original work-in-progress. More well-known authors and poets might sometimes give public readings or recitations of their work (as public relations or, in James Whitcomb Riley's case, to supplement his income). These events, usually held in large auditoriums or theaters, sold out quickly. Riley's recitations were known to be especially popular because he read his poems as they were written, with the grammar and intonation associated with southern Indiana.

The second part of this lesson has students working with one of Riley's poems: “The Old Swimmin' Hole,” to examine the way in which the poem was written (to be read in a certain manner) and the images of childhood experiences (and adulthood memories) that the poem presents.


Lesson Activities:

1. Ask the students what they like to do for fun and record their answers on the board.

2. Introduce the concept of:


as a form of entertainment people might enjoy in their homes.

3. Introduce the concept of:

Public Recitations

as a means of entertainment people would engage in publicly (usually in large groups)

4. Introduce James Whitcomb Riley and discuss his popularity as a poet.

5. Distribute copies of "The Old Swimmin' Hole". Read the poem aloud, demonstrating the way Riley might have read it in public. Ask the students to read along with you for one of the stanzas. {Included on the sidebar to the left is a contemporary photograph of the Riley's childhood swimming hole, upon which this poem was based. It is now a large, well-used park on the east side of Greenfield, Indiana.}


1. Have the students discuss the vocabulary of the poem. Note not only its rhyming techniques, but also ask the students why Riley might have “misspelled” words or run them together. (If students are leaning to spell via phonetics, this might be useful as a connecting activity.)

2. Have the students list and discuss the themes of the poem. Ask them why this particular poem might appeal to both children and adults.

The Old Swimmin' Hole Printer Friendly Icon   Printer Friendly Excerpt      

Oh ! the old swimmin'-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc't ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin' out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it's hard to part ferever with the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin' up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time's tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the humdrum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How plesant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o' fun on hands at the old swimmin'-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin'-hole.

Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lilies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder's four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze's controle
As it cut acrost some orchurd to'rds the old swimmin'-hole.

Oh! the old swimmin'-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin'-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I stray down the banks whare the trees ust to be---
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!

And I wish in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin'-hole.



Optional Extended Lesson Activities :

Accompany the students to the school library. Working with the librarian, find one or more books and/or websites that feature childrens' poetry. Give each child a short period to find a poem that appeals to them. Copy the poem (or a short section of a long poem) and let the child take it home. Their homework assignment will be to read the poem, find a section of 4 to 6 lines that they can read aloud, and then prepare a simple one-sentence statement “My poem is about ……” The next day in class, each student should be prepared to announce the title and author of his/her poem, tell the class in one sentence what the poem is about, and read aloud a few lines from the poem.