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Throughout the years I have realized that these African American students, and, in fact, almost all students, come with a fragmented knowledge of history, in particular African American history. They know the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Cinque, and a few others, but they don't know how and where the lives of these individuals fit and interact within the flow of historical events. They know something of slavery and continuing oppression, but they tend to view these events with a combination of embarrassment and disbelief. As students interpret the past, there is almost a displaced anger that so many African Americans "tolerated" their plight. "Why didn't they fight back?" is a question they have often asked.
My soul doth still forbid me tearsLatimer, himself, will be examined as an individual who prevailed against considerable odds. Born in Massachusetts in 1848, he was the son of parents who had escaped from slavery in Virginia. Though most recognized for his work with Thomas Edison and his contributions to the electric light bulb, he was considered a person of culture, which included the writing of poetry. Students should be interested in the fact that Latimer had a local connection when he worked for a lighting company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was there that he, along with Joseph V. Nichols, successfully produced a method of attaching carbon filaments in bulbs. He later received a patent for an improved process of manufacturing filaments. In its unspectacular fashion, his life stands out as a dramatic example of pride and protest.
Unconquered and unconquerable
(Myers, Now Is Your Time, p. 229)
As we move on, there will be a compilation of other "role models" we meet along the way. Poems related to these individuals and their own words will be examined and become the subject of students' writings. More personal issues such as family, skin color, hair texture, the influence of media on what is desirable in appearance, and students' appreciation of the past, as well as their goals for the future, will be examined when relevant, no matter what the historical period. Additionally, specific time will be set aside toward the unit's conclusion for pupils to discuss and express themselves in poetry in relationship to any or all of these issues.
Students will now begin to write simple poems based upon the suggestions made by Koch in his books, especially in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. Approaches will include developing the following structures presented by Koch: "I wish _____," "I use to ____ But now ____," "A ___ is like ___, and it was like ___." Gradually, they will be encouraged to expand their initial creations through the inclusion of more poetic elements or further development of those, which they have already used. Students will also be encouraged to write poems similar to those being discussed in class, but actual lessons will require the same basic approach with which Koch begins.
In late October or early November, poems read and discussed will relate directly to time periods in African American History. The same general approach will be followed: introduction of the specific poem and possibly its poet, discussion of the poem, including its relationship to the historical topic or individual being covered in class, oral reading of the poem by students, group and individual, using the poem as motivation for each student to write poems to the class. Not every poem presented should require a related student poem. Each teacher must decide for the individual class how many are appropriate, but I think two for each historical period covered should be a minimum. The individual teacher must also determine which and how many poems will be presented in each period. Depending on my group, I plan to use most of the piece mentioned in the unit.
And before I'd be a slaveThe help of the music teacher, and perhaps a parent, if one is available, will be enlisted to assist in preparing these spirituals for an appropriate musical presentation. Naturally, some will be part of the group's final presentation.
I'll be buried in my grave
(Myers, Now Is Your Time, p. 60.)
Folk poetry from this period will be discussed both to examine its dialect and its humor, and its much more serious message. Read the words of "We Raise de Wheat."
We raise de wheat,Perhaps the first known African American author of a poem, Lucy Terry will be introduced to illustrate to students that legitimate poetry was being created during this time period. This poem was transmitted only orally for nearly 100 years before being printed in 1855. Though this poem, "Bars Fight," (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p.13.) vividly retells the story of a 1746 Indian raid on the settlers of a town in Massachusetts, it presents an extremely negative image of Native Americans. This should stimulate a worthwhile discussion. "Why might Terry have felt the way she did about the raid? Was there anything you would have agreed with? What would you tell her that might influence her feelings? What are some factors that help develop negative feelings toward a group of people?"
Dey gib us de corn….
We skim de pot,
Dey gib us de liquor,
And say dat's good enough for nigger.
(Randall, The Black Poets, p. 20.)
George Moses Horton (1797 - 1881) was born a slave. Though later self-educated, he had to memorize his first poems. Some of these poems were heard by students at the University of North Carolina who arranged to have some published. Though remaining a slave, he continued his writings in which he attacked slavery and expressed his desire for freedom. His works, such as "On Liberty and Slavery" were praised. To speak out against slavery, and to be published during this period makes Horton worthy of presentation here.
Come Liberty, thou cheerful sound,Although not an African American, the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, "Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother" both depicts some of the agony inflicted by slavery and illustrates that a white man could feel some of its pain and was willing to speak.
Roll through my ravished ears…
(Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 21.)
Gone, gone---sold and goneFinally the defiant, though joyous words of some unnamed, former slave will conclude the period of enslavement.
To the rice-swamps dank and lone,
From Virginia's hills and waters, ---
Woe is me, my stolen daughters!
(Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 641.)
No more auction block for me.
No more, no more!
No more auction block for me;
Many thousand gone.
No more driver's lash for me,
No more, no more!
No more driver's lash for me;
Many thousand gone.
(Hamilton, Many Thousand Gone, p. 143.)
The film Glory, which I have used with third graders, in spite of the film's occasional rough language, presents a moving portrayal of these events, very close to their written counterpart. The film dramatically illustrates the presence and bravery of African American soldiers, despite the blatant discrimination, which surrounded them during the Civil War. I will use this film both to emphasize the positive roles played by African Americans in the struggle and to motivate students to write related poetry. Dudley Randall's "Memorial Wreath," in which he pays tribute to these soldiers, will be presented as an example. The poem was written "for the more than 200,000 Negroes who served in the Union Army during the Civil War."
Love and remembrance blossom in our hearts
For you who bore the extreme sharp pang for us,
(Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 305.)
It was not long before states began to enact "Black Codes," legislation, which restored many of the powers held by whites during slavery. As Northerners became more interested in restoring power to Southern businessmen, they increasingly ignored the terrorist methods of groups like the KKK, methods that allowed anti-black elements to regain control of the South. Most freedmen were never given land, a vehicle that might have led to some lasting economic and political power. The failure of Reconstruction to solve the problems and maintain its accomplishments led to the race problems that followed.
In the waiting room, "Colored,"The paintings of Jacob Lawrence printed in book form, The Great Migration, with accompanying text give us a visual picture to sharpen our realization of what the trek was like. Students will be asked to write a poem, perhaps joined with an illustration, assuming the role of someone who migrated. They will also investigate if any members of their family made such a move during past years. If, in fact, someone in their family did travel northward, they will then be asked to write a similar poem about what they have discovered. Throughout, the point that these people were taking a chance and the conflicting emotions they must have felt will be emphasized. The struggles, which followed, will be countered with the elements of family, church, and community that held them together.
Hands, callused and as black as the rich
(Lawrence, The Great Migration, p. 61.)
Three poems by Countee Cullen: "For a Lady I Know" (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 231.) examines the presumptuous attitude many whites held regarding African Americans. "Saturday's Child" (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 92.) presents a rhythmic though poignant picture of the hardships faced by black children. In the poem "Incident," (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 92.) a piercing wound is delivered by a bigoted white boy to a naïve young black girl. All three are excellent for upper elementary students and should easily motivate writing.
Four poems by Langston Hughes: "I, Too, Sing America" (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 9.) tells us of both the mistreatment of African Americans and their determination to prevail. It will be presented orally by both girls and boys. "Merry-Go-Round" (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 9.) helps us to realize the sad effects that Jim Crow Laws can have on a child's enthusiasm. "Harlem" (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 199.) speculates on what could happen to "a dream deferred." "Birmingham Sunday" (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 200.) vividly tells us of the horrible atrocity which occurred in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963 when four little black girls were killed as a racially motivated bomb blast ripped through their Sunday School class. It will be used together with another poem, and a newspaper article form the New Haven Register, Wednesday, May 2, 2001, announcing that an ex-Klansman finally had been convicted. (See lesson plans.)
I have only listed four poems here, but there are others by Hughes which students relate to easily. Some appear in Hughes' Selected Poems, which appears in my bibliography.
Two poems by James Weldon Johnson: "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 38.) was set to music by his brother Rosamond and in 1920 was adopted by the NAACT as the Negro National Anthem. The first verse has been sung by almost every African American student in our area, but the meaning of its words is fuzzy to many of them, as is the son's general significance. All verses will be presented and discussed. (See lesson plans.) "The Creation" (Pinsky, America's Favorite Poems, p. 142.) gives us Johnson's version of the biblical Creation. It will be used as an illustration of the strong sense of religious faith that has sustained many African Americans and, also, to prepare an oral presentation which will develop pride in the students presenting. Claude McKay: "We Must Die" (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 58.) was written in response to the racial injustice and violence that was occurring in the South. He presents his words as a challenge:
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,Sterling Brown: "An Old Woman Remembers" (Gross, Talk That Talk, p. 143.) tells the story of the 1906 Atlanta riots. It could easily move into a discussion of the causes of race riots and the effect they may have had on African American history. Pupils will be asked to comment on the woman's concluding comments on arming themselves as a means of ending the riot.
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
They sat on their front stoops and in their yards,A group of poems will be presented for various heroes involved in American history, as well as poems recalling the heritage of the past and various heroes who may not have been covered previously: "For My People," by Margaret Walker (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 314.); "Heritage," by Gwendolyn Brooks (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 100.); "Still I Rise," by Maya Angelou (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 107.); "Listen Children," by Lucille Clifton (Gross, Pass It On, p. 28.); "Martin Luther King, Jr." by Gwendolyn Brooks, (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 100.); "Women," by Alice Walker (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p. 122.); "Malcolm X," by Dudley Randall, "American Gothic," by Samuel Allen, (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 342.); "Harriet Tubman," by Eloise Greenfield (Hudson, Pass It On, p. 23.); and "My People," by Langston Hughes (Hudson, Pass It On, p. 22.).
Not talking much, but ready; their welcome ready:
Their strong oiled and loaded on their knees.
Finally, to conclude this unit, we will focus on the personal feelings of the students about themselves and the accomplishments of those they know, including themselves. Poems relating to personal characteristics and feelings will lead the way for student creations based upon their own feelings and experiences. "Color," by Langston Hughes, "Black Is Best," by Larry Thompson, "Black Is Beautiful," by Useni Eugeni Perkins, "Jim," by Gwendolyn Brooks, "I Can," by Mari Evans, and "WilliMae's Cornrows," by Nanette Mellage are just a few which will be used. Poems about family will now be featured: "Big Mama" and "My Daddy Is a Cool Dude," by Karama Fufuka, A Grandfather Poem," by William J. Harris, "Mother to Son," by Langston Hughes, and "Daddy's Little Girl," by Linda Michelle Baro. Again, these poems are from a group of poems that I have accumulated over the years. Most can be found in general anthologies of African American poetry or can be replaced with other poems conveying messages of personal pride in self and/or family. Some, but not all, are in the anthologies I have listed in my bibliography. They lend themselves well to use with motivators suggested by Koch. (See bibliography.) "I wish ___," "I am proud ___," or "Once I ___ But now I ___."
There are many other poems that would be appropriate for all sections covered in this unit. Each teacher should feel free to add or subtract from those that are mentioned. The important element is to include works which make historical facts more real to students and which motivate them to write poems of their own.
Each student will compile a two-pocketed folder containing copies of the poems the class has read together, along with those poems which that particular student has written and related essays and research materials. The group will print a class publication of favorite poems created by students. One a regular basis, students will share their creations with the rest of the class. Occasionally, students will go to other classrooms to ready their poetry. They especially will trade poems with members of the other two classes whose teachers are participating in a team within this poetry seminar. The unit will last until the team's culminating assemble in April, gaining intensity as the event nears.
Since the culmination of this unit will be an assembly presented to the school and parents by the three-team classrooms, pupils will have ample opportunity to develop dramatic readings of their own poetry and that which they have read as a group. It is hoped that some parents will be motivated to write poetry about the pride they feel about their children.
Subject Matter Areas:
reading, language arts, and social studies
There are many vocabulary words in these works that will need some introduction or reinforcement for my students. Older students or an advanced group might need less preparation. Specific words will be suggested here as we examine each piece.
- Develop a clearer appreciation and understanding of the events surrounding the 1963 bombing.
- Develop and appreciation and understanding of the positive and negative aspects of the recent conviction (2001) of one of the bombers.
- Develop an increased understanding of vocabulary used in the poems, story, and newspaper article.
- Develop the ability to identify rhyming lines, internal rhyme, repetition, metaphors, and descriptive vocabulary in poetry.
- Develop the ability to compare and contrast the two poems and to relate their content to historical events.
- Provide opportunities for pupils to express their feelings relative to the bombing by creating an "I wish ___" and an "I am proud ___" poem.
- "Ballad of Birmingham," by Dudley Randall (Randall, The Black Poets, p. 107.)
- "Birmingham Sunday," by Langston Hughes (Hughes, The Poetry of the Negro, p. 200.)
- "Church Bomb Suspect Guilty," New Haven Register, 05/02/01.
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (optional)
The number of days needed to achieve these objectives could vary greatly, probably from two or three days to two or three weeks, if the novel is included. I have previously written an institute unit (89.02.08) based on only "Ballad of Birmingham" which teachers might wish to refer to on the Institute's web site: http://www.yale.edu/ynht/. The lesson covers the poem's content well, but an examination of the poetic elements, which help make it so effective are not examined. When the group first hears the two poems, they already will have traveled along the path of African American history leading to this period of the Civil Rights Movement. They will have knowledge of Jim Crow laws and the history of prejudice that inspire them. They will be aware that a resistance to the injustice of segregation was growing and that this resistance drew desperate, violent act of retaliation from those who would not change.
After discussing the historical fact surrounding the bombings, the two poems will be presented. Since it more clearly recounts the events, "Ballad of Birmingham" will be discussed first. Discussion of vocabulary (sacred, fierce), rhyming lines (2nd and 4th), internal rhyme ("no" and "go"), repetition ("street of Birmingham"), voice (child, mother, and poet), metaphors ("rose petal sweet"), and descriptive language ("clawed") will be given attention here. The impact of the final two stanzas, after we are being led to believe that the girls might be safe, will lead us to the more overtly vivid description in "Birmingham Sunday." For my fourth graders, there are a number of words that will require discussion: scorched, ignite, Dragon Kings, implement, missionaries aeons, and Golden Rule. Since I believe this poem can serve its purpose without completely understanding the references to China, Red, and dynamite, they will be briefly explained but not dwelled upon. The descriptive language, presence of some repetition ("Four little girls…Four tiny girls"), and the implication of revenge and ultimate judgment mentioned in the poem's final section will receive more attention. This should lead us naturally to the newspaper article of 05/02/01.
Before that, I feel compelled to mention that some may feel that images of "spattered flesh" and "blood upon the wall" are too vivid for nine and ten year old students to read without causing harm. Certainly an unsupervised reading is not recommended, but if students are carefully led to this point, they know of the sacrifices made by African Americans from the past and are developing the pride for which this unit aims. Knowing that this event, as horrible as it was, helped to strengthen the resolve of the Movement, that it could not be ignored by the public and politicians, and that ultimately some justice was achieved through the enactment of laws and that some form of retribution for those responsible has occurred, might counteract the brutality depicted in Hughes' poem by replacing fear with pride.
Next, the newspaper article from the New Haven Register will tell us of the conviction of Thomas Blanton, after over 37 years, for helping other Klansmen to plant the bomb. Again, there are a number of vocabulary words that need varying amounts of discussion: galvanized, exterior, murky, segregationist, foul-mouthed, and in vain seem most necessary for fourth graders.
After reading the article together, the class will discuss various aspects of the piece: (How long ago did the bombing occur? Why did it take so long to convict Blanton? What was positive and what was negative about the fact that it took until now to achieve some justice for Blanton's acts?)
Possible questions for follow up discussion of poems
- Explain which poem told the story best.
- Explain which poem was the most vivid. How did you feel about reading this
- descriptive language?
- Which poem did you like most? Explain why.
- Explain how you think the four young girls would react to Blanton's conviction.
Students will be asked to create an "I wish ___" and an "I am proud ___" poem expressing their feelings related to the bombing, its effect on the Civil Rights Movement, Blanton's conviction, and, perhaps how they view the present state of affairs regarding equal rights and the threat of violence. From previous experiences, they will be familiar with this approach to writing poetry. (See section on writing poetry.) More than one poem will be welcomed, but emphasis will be placed on elaboration, descriptive vocabulary, metaphors, and repetition. Poems will be shared among class members and perhaps with students in other classrooms. Copies will go in their poetry folders. Some will be read during our culminating assembly.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The use of this novel is optional and probably would not work well with most classes beyond middle school. It tells the fictitious, but basically realistic, story of an African American family living in Flint, Michigan who travel to Birmingham where the children's grandmother lives. They go there to deposit the defiant, oldest son whose antics are being blames on life in a northern urban environment. Besides his almost immediate rehabilitation, the trip narrowly avoids disaster when young sister attends Sunday School in the very church and on the very day of the bombing. In a rather mystical chain of events, the girl escapes and the attitudes of all family members are altered forever. The story is both humorous and touching. It has much that fourth graders, and even older students, can relate to easily. Most importantly, it gives us insight into some of the feelings that must have been felt by those families directly affected by the blast. It should make the historical events, the two poems, and the article even more meaningful to students. I will read the novel to the class during our daily oral reading period. It should take two or three weeks to complete. Appropriate comprehension questions easily present themselves as the teacher reads, but the main emphasis will be on appreciating the story and its characters.
Suggestions for Use with Older Students
Though designed for upper elementary grade students, with slight changes in approach and emphasis, most of these activities seem quite appropriate for middle and high school students. An additional section on the conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing could result in some comparisons with the Birmingham, Atlanta bombing. The disregard for who was killed in order to emphasize the goals of each group involved seems to provide a valid comparison. Lesson Two: Developing Expository Writing Based Through the Use of Poetry
Poem: "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson
Subject Matter Areas:
reading, language arts, social studies, and social development
liberty, chast'ning, treading, and stray
This poem, which many recognize as the Negro National Anthem, talks of the pride African Americans should feel about their strength that sustained them through the difficult history of the past.
- Develop the ability to recognize three events or individuals from African American history for which we should be proud.
- Develop the ability to create a five paragraph expository essay on these events or individuals.
After most of the unit has been completed, the poem will be presented, read, and sung. Rhyme, repetition, metaphor, rhythm, and descriptive language will be discussed. The content stressing the recognition of pride and strength from the past will be discussed. Pupils, who will be familiar with the form of a five-paragraph essay (introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion), will be asked to write and expository paper in which they discuss three instances in African American history for which they feel we should "lift every voice and sing." The use of detail will be emphasized. Giving examples from the lives of those they know from history or those whom they are familiar with from their own experiences will be encouraged in order to illustrate how the strength of each example has affected the future. Possibilities include the value of being nonviolent (Martin Luther King, Jr.) or the importance of pursuing your own talents despite the barriers placed by others (Baseball players Jackie Robinson and Satchel Page). References to poems we have read will also be encouraged. Essays will become part of their folders. Lesson Three: Connecting Pride in Yourself to Expository Writing and Poetry
Subject Matter Areas:
Language arts and social development Since developing a feeling of pride in the protest which has occurred throughout African American history, an implicit goal of all activities in this unit, students will now be asked to focus on things about themselves for which they are proud. They will again be asked to use the five-paragraph expository form, a focus in grades 4-6, to discuss three things about themselves for which they are proud. They easily should be able to support their choices through the use of personal examples. Essays will be read and shared with others before being placed in their folders. Finally, each student will develop a poem using the form "I am proud of myself ___" and/or "I feel proud when ___." More than one response will be encouraged, along with the use of descriptive language, repetition, and any other element of poetry that is appropriate to what they write. These poems will be shared with others and should be part of the team's culminating activity.
Koch, Kenneth, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red: Teaching Great Poetry to Children. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 1990
Koch, Kenneth, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. New York: Harper and Row, 1970
Koch, Kenneth, and Farrell, Kate. Sleeping on the Wing. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1981
Sources of Unit Material Clinton, Catherine, I, Too, Sing America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1998..
An anthology of African American poems moves us from Lucy Terry's "The Bars Fight," composed in the 1700's, on to the present. Excellent information on poets along with thought provoking illustrations.
Curtis, Christopher Paul, The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963.
This chapter book follows an African American family from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama where the lives intertwine with the 1963 bombing of a church in which four young African American girls were killed. Humorous and sensitive.
Gross, Linda and Barnes, Marian, Talk That Talk: An Anthology of African American Storytelling. New York: Touchstone Book, 1989.
Though its main focus is on the African American tradition of storytelling, it contains a number of poems, some of which I have used.
Hamilton, Virginia, Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Alfred a Knopf, 1993.
Hamilton brings the period of enslavement and the Civil War to life through the stories of mostly little known people who escaped slavery. Though she takes some liberties by the inclusion of conversation and in some description, the stories are essentially accurate and quite appealing to elementary students. A small amount of poetry is included.
Hudson, Wade, Pass It On. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1993.
Interesting, colorful illustrations accompany this anthology of African American poems appropriate for elementary students.
Hughes, Langston, Selected Poems. New York: Random House, Inc., 1959.
Contains a variety of poems by Hughes. Many relate to this unit.
Hughes, Langston and Bontemps, Arna, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970.
This anthology includes the work of 163 poets and hundreds of poems arranged historically. Brief notes on poets and section on tributes by non-African Americans. Poems also indexed by first line and author. Excellent source of material before 1970.
Lawrence, Jacob, The Great Migration: An American Story. New York: The Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection, Harper-Collins, 1993.
Accompanied by a brief text, the paintings of Jacob Lawrence tell the story of the northward migration of African Americans. A concluding poem "Migration," by Walter Dean Myers, captures the same spirit as Lawrence's paintings.
Lawrence, Jacob, Harriet and the Promised Land. Hong Kong: Aladdin Press, 1997.
Accompanied by a rhyming poem, the dramatic paintings of Lawrence tell us the story of Harriet Tubman.
Myers, Walter Dean, Now Is Your Time: The African American Struggle for Freedom. New York: Harper Trophy, Harper Collins, 1991.
By telling the stories of real people, Myers gives us a meaningful picture of African American history. I especially drew on his discussion of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, focus of the movie, Glory. Contains authentic photographs and a few pieces of poetry.
Pinsky, Robert, America's Favorite Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
An anthology of favorite poems selected by a wide variety of individuals. Contains a number of African American poets.
Randall, Dudley, The Black Poets. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
Includes poems from folk poetry up until examples from the 60's. Presented in historical order. Some are not appropriate for elementary students.
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