I am a fifth grade teacher at L.W. Beecher School in New Haven. At present, my class includes twenty-five students ranging in age from ten to twelve. Only a few are close to thirteen. They come from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and home situations. Their academic ability and the level of their general knowledge also vary considerably. One child can barely read, while another is part of the city’s talented and gifted program. Generally their basic skill level is below average, but many have potential well beyond that point. As in the school as a whole, about ninety percent are African Americans. There are also two Hispanic children and one who is white. Some are members of families with multiple problems. Few of their lives are without difficulties. Though they might be reluctant to admit it, most enjoy school at this stage of their lives, but not just for the academics. Many, although not all, parents or guardians are supportive of the school in particular and education in general. Some want to be helpful but are not sure of the best way to go about it. Often the constant struggles of everyday life thwart their efforts. Right now most of the children have lofty goals in life but soon will be facing the competition of more academically prepared peers, along with meeting the pressures which all teenagers, especially those growing up in inner-city America, encounter. For most, the road ahead appears to be a difficult one.
One of the major topics covered during the social studies curriculum in the fifth grade classroom I have described follows the history of African Americans in the United States. Through a variety of activities, the group travels the historical route, highlighting the periods of slavery, the Civil War,
Reconstruction, world-wide conflict, the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, and pertinent present day problems and accomplishments as they apply to African Americans. I believe that such an approach allows me to present the history of the United States in a manner more relevant and meaningful to all races, especially those who are African American.
I have developed this unit, “Poetry: A View of African American Life”, to coordinate primarily with the social studies unit of the history of African Americans. Through my suggested activities, I hope not only to increase my pupils’ knowledge of African American life in the United States as it has existed and changed, but also to increase their awareness of African American poets and their poetry. Of equal, and probably greater, value to pupils will be the opportunity to gain a more personal understanding and appreciation of people, places, feelings, and events that mark the course of African American history and intermingle with the present.
Although perhaps this unit is most responsive to the needs of African American pupils, I strongly feel that all students have something valuable to gain from its content. African American pupils will hopefully feel a personal pride in the poetry of the past as well as that created by more modern poets. The message of courage and survival, along with humor and love, that weaves its way through the poems they will encounter should additionally increase feelings of self-esteem among these pupils. All pupils, however, will increase their understanding of, and, perhaps, their tolerance toward others.
In my present unit, I would like to augment my primarily historical approach with a focus on some aspects of African American daily life as they existed and changed throughout the years, and this is another reason why I am introducing poetry. I hope that it will provide a means of understanding daily existence. For example, a poem relating to the custom of “jumping the broom” during slavery could both increase knowledge and lead pupils to research the ceremony.
Slave Marriage Ceremony Supplement
Be good, go ‘long, an’ keep up yo’ name,
De broomstick’s jumped, de worl’s not wide,
She’s now yo’ own. Salute yo’ bride!
The poems that I will use are almost exclusively the work of African American poets, beginning with folk poetry and early spirituals and ending with the more recent African American poets, including the pupils themselves. Using the works of African Americans in studying African American life is not only logical but provides the opportunity to highlight outstanding African American poets. Hopefully this will result in the type of increased pride and self-esteem that will motivate pupils positively. Where information is available, biographical material on poets will be included when their work is presented. At times pupils will research these facts themselves. Though important, this information should blend with rather than overshadow the poetry itself. Other than those I cite as examples in my narrative, I decided not to include a list of specific poems for use in this unit. The possibilities are quite numerous, and selection will sometimes be influenced by the particular group of students. An adequate bibliography, containing many excellent anthologies, is appended.
Throughout my unit pupils will be encouraged to write their own poetry. Because the basic elements of much poetry, such as simile and metaphor, are taught in reading, poetic structure need not be emphasized, though it should not be ignored if consideration of it fits naturally with the discussed poem. I hope that by examining a wide variety of poems, pupils will learn by example. Ample opportunity will be given to sharing their works, even across grade levels. A folder of their original poems will be kept by each pupil.
As a general and sustaining framework, I will present at least one poem a week throughout the year. As they become more familiar with African American poetry, pupils may have a voice in selecting the weekly poem. Each pupil will receive a copy of the poem(s) of the week and will compile an ever expanding poetry folder. Each poem will be read silently, orally, and sometimes dramatically. At times information on the poet will be included. Pupil impressions and interpretations will follow where appropriate. If the historical framework seems of importance, it will be integrated into the discussion. Relating the poem to the children’s lives may be undertaken, depending upon the poem and classroom circumstances. Though this weekly activity is not the major thrust of the overall unit, it is a very important element.
For the heart of my poetry unit I have attempted to divide poems into a number of loose, general categories. In some cases, there is considerable overlapping, allowing poems to be easily switched. It is also possible that some sections could be combined. Poems within a category may come from a variety of time periods and poets. Some poets will be represented in most sections. My categories are: Folk Poetry, Spirituals, People (Famous and Family), Problems (and sometimes solutions), and Self-esteem.
I do not plan to develop all of these categories in uninterrupted sequence, but, as I have said, at the rate of at least one poem a week. Generally, the categories will correspond to those of my social studies curriculum. For example, folk poetry and spirituals will integrate with our study of slavery. Poems about famous people primarily will be integrated as they are encountered in our study of United States history. Some will be introduced independently. A poem on Rosa Parks or Dr. King might be presented during the week we are learning about the Montgomery bus boycott. A poem on Satchell Paige could be introduced on its own. Family poems will be connected to our social development curriculum. Those poems centering on problems and self-esteem will relate to both social studies and social development. Outside of those used as weekly poems, I will cover poems from these two categories last. I feel that as pupils’ historical knowledge and maturity increases as the year progresses, their understanding and sensitivity to these poems will increase.
As I am continuously introducing material from the broader categories, our poetry activities will be readily integrated with other areas of the curriculum, especially reading, language arts, art and music. There seem to be a variety of sequences which a teacher might follow in using this material. My summary of each category with related teaching suggestions leaves implementation a choice for the individual teacher.