It has become an increasingly arduous task to teach youths who read three to four years below grade level to write about the people, places and situations in their community. Alvin Toffler states that students are “so ignorant of the past that they see nothing unusual about the present.” This statement expresses my sentiment exactly. These students are so ahistorical that they know little or nothing about their city, their neighborhood or the people who were instrumental to the growth and development of the city. Many students have grown so accustomed to their environment that they say it is dull, dead and not worth writing about. However, a city is a place where a myriad of activities go on twenty-four hours of the day. It is a place where educational and cultural opportunities are abundant and can satisfy the most curious and restless soul. A city is never dull, but the students label it as so because of several reasons. Some students are reluctant to write about their community because they are ashamed of it. They are afraid that the teacher and their classmates will associate them with the vice and immorality that runs rampant in the community. Other students are able to verbalize their feelings about drugs, crime and poverty in the community, but once they are asked to put their thoughts on paper, they are reluctant to do so because their written vocabulary is limited and because they know that expressing ideas on paper is sometimes difficult and time consuming. Many students believe that everybody knows what goes on in the city; therefore there is no need for them to repeat what has already been said or written.
While these students remain ignorant of the city’s history, its contributions to the development of culture, and the various opportunities the city has to offer, the city thrives and provides opportunities, entertainment, pleasure and excitement to those who dare to venture and discover.
Therefore, in this unit, I will develop strategies that will enable me to teach these students to express themselves through the written word. Even though students are reluctant to write, they will receive incentive through reading and viewing materials that pertain to city life. While working toward this goal, the students will also extend their concept of the city far beyond the ever-present crime, poverty, drugs and racism. They will begin to organize concrete concepts of what the city has to offer them in terms of self-prosperity.
This unit is intended to cover a 6 to 8 week period. This unit will be divided into three strategies. In the first strategy, the students will be required to read some historical information on the American city and New Haven. The second strategy will require the students to read and analyze poems, plays and prose that relate to the theme of the city. These literary materials will be read in the above order. Most of the poems are short and precise. They will help the students to begin to recall faces, places, people and situations in their own community. As the unit progresses, the materials will become more difficult, yet the focus will remain on the city. The plays and prose will allow the students to analyze characters who are products of urbanization.
Since these youths are “so ignorant of the past . . . ,” the first strategy I will use to motivate them to produce their own literature is a non-literary or historical approach. I will prepare a three to five page paper, “A Brief History of the American City and New Haven.” This brief history will serve as an introduction to the entire unit. The students will learn how the city developed and how its people settled in certain sections and shaped its economy, politics, social and cultural standards. Such background information will allow the students to compare and contrast their city with other cities throughout the United States. For example, the students will learn that blacks and immigrants flocked to northeastern cities in search of jobs in factories. They will also learn where and why ethnic groups settled in certain parts of cities. Student activities related to this strategy can be found in the Lesson Plan section of this unit.
The second strategy I will use to motivate the students to produce their own literature is a literary one. The students will read poems, plays and prose that reflect city life. Some of the literature will reenforce what the students read in the brief history, while other readings will deal specifically with racism, crime, poverty, and drugs. A great poet wrote that every thing has already been said about every subject, but a true poet learns how to express old ideas in new and creative ways. I will encourage the students to scrutinize the materials. Yet, from their visceral feelings, I will expect them to express their personal observations and experiences as being city dwellers. The reading selections serve only as a guide to balancing the students’ thoughts and expanding their perception and awareness of various topics that can be written about related to life in the city. Most of the poems are short so as to entice the students, who are reluctant to read, to quickly become involved with the unit and not feel inundated with work. As this section develops, the prose and plays will increase in length and depth.
In the following paragraphs, I will summarize the poems, plays and prose. The materials will be summarized in the order in which the students will read them. Student activities will follow each reading. These activities will be developed in the Lesson Plan section of this unit.
The themes of the following poems concern l8th and l9th century American cities. These poems include criticism of the city as well as the contributions cities have made to cultural development. The first poem is “Mannahatta” by Walt Whitman. This poem describes New York in the 1850’s. Whitman presents a much more tolerable view of city life than most modern poets. The reader gets a sense of a city filled with commerce and immigrants who are constantly causing the population to increase, yet the New York of the 1850’s is not polluted and the view of the sky is not obstructed by skyscrapers.
“Chicago” by Carl Sandburg, describes the typical modern city that has been criticized by sentimentalists and, on the other hand, praised by industrialists. The speaker in this poem weighs the negative and positive aspects of the city and decides to defend the city because of what it has done to improve mankind.
Ogden Nash in “The City,” wittily compares and contrasts city people to country people. In this poem, city people do not quite measure up to the courage, stamina and fortitude of country people; however, the city people live more comfortably.
The theme of the next poems reflect the myriad of sounds that can be heard in a city. “Broadway: Twilight” by Tom Prideaux is a very short poem that describes the sound of sirens piercing through traffic. While developing the feeling of chaos that the sirens produce, the poet interjects and describes an aesthetic and tranquil star-lighted sky that exists far beyond the chaos and noise on the city street.
“Auto Wreck” by Karl Shapiro has a rich theme that deals with death, but for my purpose I will concentrate on the theme of sound. This poem reiterates the theme of sirens and sound, but the poet includes the effect the sound has in drawing crowds. The poem suggests much activity made by the ambulance people, the fire department that “. . . douches ponds of blood,” the “. . . cops who sweep the glass . . . .”
Phyllis McGinley’s poem “Q Is For Quiet” will immediately allow the students to focus on the sounds that are heard on Sunday mornings. The sounds on Sundays are quite different from the sounds that are made on the other days of the week.
Nature is the theme of the following poems. “City Tree” by Edna St. Vincent Millay compares the sound tree leaves make in the country with the sound that they do not quite make in the city because of the overbearing traffic sounds.
“City Autumn” by Joseph Moncure is a short poem that depicts the beginning of fall in the city. The poet describes the effect the fall has on the birds, the buildings and the people. His picture describes a gloomy city.
The next theme deals with garbage on city streets. “The Term” by William Carlos Williams depicts an area of the city where trash blows to and fro and nobody cares. Also, in Patricia Hubbell’s poem, “The Streetcleaners’ Lament,” there is little hope that city streets will ever be clean. No matter how often streetcleaners “clean them,” which is one of the terms she uses repetitiously she believes there will be “dirt and dirt and dirt for ever” on city streets.
The following group of poems focus on the theme of people who make up a city. “People” by Lois Linkis describes the shapes, sizes and mannerisms of the people who live in cities. Rachel Field describes an old and bent man who sells flowers from a cart. In her poem, “The Flower Cart Man” Field tells of the shoddy old man with his lean and gray horse that goes from street to street selling flowers and brightening and perfuming his surroundings.
“Cobbler” by Peggy Bacon suggests that this occupation provides a needed service; however the cobbler in the poem knows little of anything outside of his business because he is so busy taking care of the needs of the people who live in the city.
“Richard Cory” by E. A. Richards tells how people marvel at well-dressed individuals they pass on city streets. A well-dressed individual makes one seem well-mannered and intelligent. But the character that is the envy of everyones’ eye, went home one calm summer night and put a bullet through his own head. This poem is typical of the false impressions that city people have of one another.
“If I Could Learn ln Some Quite Casual Way” by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a moving poem about a woman riding in a subway, and while she looks at the back of the newspaper that is being held and read by someone across the aisle from her, she reads that her loved one has been killed. To keep from bursting into tears, the woman takes in the sights in the train station and then reads the human interest section of the newspaper. This poem suggests that the city has ways of helping people deal with the impossible.
“Husband and Wife” By Miriam Hershenson is a very short poem that paints a grim picture of a family sitting in a subway waiting for their transportation. The family does not communicate. Only one word has been uttered during the entire journey. This poem suggests that this family is a part of an urban setting where commuting and communication is very important, yet the family does not take full advantage of all the city has to offer them.
“Young Woman At A Window” by William Carlos Williams describes a woman who is sitting at a window crying. This woman has a child on her lap whose nose is pressed to the window pane. This poem makes the reader wonder why the woman is crying and why the child is not outside playing with other children.
“Mother To Son” by Langston Hughes does not specifically address itself to the city, but the experience the mother has had and the advice she gives her son is certainly the kind of advice a mother would give a son who has become disenchanted with school, work and life in general. A mother who has to rear a child in an area that is filled with crime, poverty, drugs and racism would certainly try to persuade her child to see life a little beyond the streets of their community.
“For My People” by Margaret Walker is truly a poem for and about black people everywhere. This poem vividly describes the labor black people have performed, the games black people have played and the faults of black people who throng “47th Street in Chicago,” “Lenox Avenue in New York,” and “Rampart Street in New Orleans.” The names of these streets could have been changed to the lower section of Dixwell Avenue in New Haven or Congress Avenue in New Haven and still the content of this poem would be relevant. The poem ends with a plea to black people to make positive changes in themselves as well as the world and community in which they live.
The last group of poems center around the theme of places. “Emma’s Store” by Dorothy Aldis compares and prefers the neighborhood store to the downtown department store. “Street Window” by Carl Sandburg describes a window of a pawnshop. Sandburg gives a detailed description of objects in the window.
“Incident” by Countee Cullen takes place in old Baltimore. The speaker in the poem recalls an incident from his childhood. While visiting relatives in Baltimore from May until December, the only thing the speaker can remember is a little white boy who poked out his tongue and called him “nigger.” This poem like “Richard Cory” deals with impressions. The students will learn that first impressions of people and cities do not always represent the truth.
After reading the section on poetry, the students will read two prose selections. The first selection is “The Wife of His Youth” by Charles Chestnutt. This story was selected because it reenforces what the students have learned about blacks who migrated to the North. This story shows how one black man chose to hide his slave past and assimilate into the life style of the North. From this reading the students will get a feeling for the type of jobs that were available to blacks during the development of the city. The students will learn how clubs were organized in cities and how these clubs united people of common interest and background.
The second prose selection will be
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
. The students will read the first nine chapters of the text. These chapters describe Malcom’s rural upbringing and his later experiences in northern cities. This book is extremely appropriate, since it deals with an individual’s personal experiences with poverty, crime, drugs and racism. Because this book is written in the first person, the students will be more at ease when it is time for them to write. They too will be able to write in the first person.
Next, the students will read two plays. The first play is entitled,
. The playwright, Reginald Rose, makes this an ethnic play that deals with the problems of an Italian family in the big city. The parents in this play are descendants of Italian immigrants, yet the children are so caught up in the struggle of city life that they lose touch with Italian tradition and values. This play will allow the students to see how other ethnic groups respond to crime, drugs, poverty and racism.
The second play that will be read is,
A Day of Absence
by Douglas Turner Ward. This play is a satirical fantasy that presents the black/ white issue. The blacks in a southern town decide to leave or disappear. The whites panic. Unsanitary conditions develop. The entire labor force ceases to function and the town becomes total chaos. The purpose of this play is to show how the success of a town or city depends on the skills of all types of people.
The third strategy I will use to motivate the students to produce their own urban literature will be a visual one. It is sometimes an onerous task for students to create mental pictures. Because these students have difficulty recalling the people, the houses, the stores, the playgrounds, the grassy and grassless parks, the old people, the colors and shapes of buildings, the smell of hallways etc., I will provide the students with photographs and slides that have been taken in and about New Haven. The students will recognize photographs and slides taken on Dixwell Avenue, in Goffe Street Park, on Edgewood Avenue and in Edgewood Park. Some of the pictures were taken on The Green and several of New Haven’s “Street People” will be recognized by the students. The students will produce prose and poetry around these visual aides. One of the student activities will result in a prose work similar to
Flypaper of Life
by Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes. In this short book, the authors use a series of pictures and develop prose that relate to the pictures. The theme of this book is life in Harlem. The pictures and poems describe the ordinary people, children, open fire hydrants, men and women riding the subway, hard times, good times, etc.
Flypaper of Life
will help students organize their ideas for a special project. The students will be required to use several personal photographs and develop a story about the pictures.
In the following section of this unit I will provide five sample lesson plans. The first lesson plan will coincide with “A Brief History of the American City and New Haven;” the second lesson plan will coincide with the poems that deal with l8th and l9th century America; the third lesson plan will coincide with
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
; the fourth lesson plan will coincide with
and the fifth lesson plan will coincide with the visual aid section of the unit.
Although the end result of these three strategies will be manifested in the students’ producing prose and poetry that reflect personal experiences and observations, the students may not necessarily have to follow all of the above steps before they are able to write effectively. These steps, however, will be followed so as to provide a continuous guide to expanding the students’ thoughts and perceptions of the city.