Over the years, I have taught within inner-city public schools where African American children comprise the dominant make-up of the student population. For many of these students, reading and reading comprehension prove challenging. Reading test scores for black students are often disproportionately low as compared to their white counterparts. Reading and reading comprehension challenges include but are not limited to difficulties in the areas of phonemic awareness, decoding skills, minimal or non-exposure to literature outside of the school environment, reading fluently using intonation and expression, and relating to and understanding covered text.
In the New Haven, Connecticut, school district in which I teach, educators rigorously work to empower all students in these areas. In grades K through 2, major emphasis is placed on students learning phonics, word structure, graphemic sound patterns, basic syntax, and semantics. Picture books across genre and poetry selections are used to introduce children to the substance, sound, and meaning of words. By Grade 3, children are expected to put that scaffolded knowledge into action; statistics reveal that a number of students—again predominantly African American—continue to fall short of reaching that goal.
To help students forge ahead in these areas, state and district-mandated language arts frameworks and remedial support are provided and implemented by instructors. On a daily basis in regular education classrooms, teachers strategically zero in on small group instruction, guided reading, and interactive storytelling using picture book and/or reading- leveled chapter books resources primarily written in narrative form. Prosody practice—that incorporates the sound and meaning of words through the use of poetic works by popular American poets—is interspersed into classroom instruction. Via these teaching methods, young learners are immersed in the
of words and the use of language to promote fluency in reading and reading comprehension. Although significant gains are made, many students continue to struggle in these areas. Could it be that we need to enhance and/or modify our approach in the way we introduce literature to children in the elementary grades, particularly in view of the reality that many children
require additional support in these areas at Grade 3? Would teaching language arts and select subjects from a
perspective make a significant impact? I have developed
More Than Rhythm & Rhyme: An Acoustic Trek through the African American Experience
to serve as an affirmative response to these questions.
Why Poetry & Social Studies from a Culturally-Specific Perspective?
Literature studies reveal that poetry draws on the senses, helping readers to see familiar things or facets of life often in engagingly new perspectives. Children enjoy hearing cadence, repetition, rhymed verses, and words that tickle the tongue like alliteration and onomatopoeia. They are eager to join in the rhythmic experience. Thus, poetry serves as an appealing tool to foster learning.
Close examination of the oral tradition of black people reveals that rhythmic patterns and sound are an integral part of African American expression: it is experienced when we hear children jump rope to the cadence, rhythm, and sound of the words in syncopation with the twirling cord. It is heard when the pastor zealously preaches a church sermon, and the congregation chimes in with call and response. It is heard when blackfolk "play the dozens," a game where two individuals good humouredly compete against one another to determine who comes up with the better insult. It is experienced in traditional lullabies and myths-turned-into-song (like the 1950s rock-and-roll remake of "Stagger Lee"), and in jazz, hip hop and rap music. The poetic voice is steeped in the oral tradition of black people.
Education trends reveal that African American children (and other students of color) do not consistently or often substantively see themselves represented in children's literature and/or in the routine classroom curriculum. (Outside of introducing a few great blacks in history during the month of February, African American heritage is rarely well represented in elementary grade level Social Studies curriculum.) Poetry, thus, can lend itself as a powerful teaching tool to draw children into the classroom learning experience. The evidence is both visible and audible: it is heard when we listen to young learners enthusiastically respond to African American children's book author Eloise Greenfield's poetic work, "Rope Rhyme:"
Get set, ready now jump right in
Bounce and kick and giggle and spin
Listen to the rope when it hits the ground
Listen to the clappedly-slappedy sound…
The lyricism, rhythmic tone, cadence, and overall energetic sound of each word draws students into the jump-rope experience, helping them make text-to-world-to-self connections, ultimately increasing their reading and reading comprehension skills. African American poetry can too serve as an engaging, culturally-specific tool used to draw children into the classroom learning experience. What better way to enhance and strengthen fluency, intonation, oral expression, reading, and reading comprehension skills than by immersing young learners in the sound and significance of poetry with which they can identify! Keeping these realities in mind, I have elected to target the sound of the poetic voice— integrating Language Arts and Social Studies with emphasis on aspects of African American heritage—as a major focus in helping young learners strengthen language development and reading comprehension skills, ultimately helping them connect with the written and spoken word.
An Additional Thought
Many educators at the primary grade level are familiar with and often use vintage and/or contemporary poetic works created by wonderful children's book author's ranging from Mary Ann Hoberman ("A House Is A House for Me" and "Yellow Butter") and Margaret Wise Brown ("Good Night Moon") to iconic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and more. Few instructors, however, can cite the names of poets (or children's book authors in general) from diverse cultures whose literary works prove equally engaging for young learners. This particularly holds true for works created by vintage and contemporary African American poets.
Best teaching practices reveal that teachers must be mindful of the cultural background and differentiated learning styles of all students within the classroom
Teachers who truly embrace these practices will make use of children's literature across genre and cultures to academically empower their students. Although well intended, not all teachers are adept in embracing this practice, often relying on children's book resources with which they are most familiar—resources that are not always culturally sensitive or inclusive.
Using this curriculum unit will serve as a springboard in countering this trend, allowing students to embrace one another across cultures.
More Than Rhythm & Rhyme
can be implemented any time during the course of the year. I, however, suggest implementing it during mid-January, around Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, into February during African American heritage month, through the first week of in April to kick off National Poetry month.
Laying the Foundation - Setting the Tone
Establishing rules and creating a welcoming, culturally-inclusive classroom environment is paramount at the start of the year. In the New Haven School District, we have an approximate four-week window to set the tone. Taking advantage of that aperture, strategically prepare daily lesson plans that target our course of study and ways to promote positive social interaction: I select children's book narrative and poetic resources that address specific behavioral concerns and/or positive concepts that young learners are expected to embrace. (I additionally immerse my students in the "Pledge of Allegiance," "This Land Is Your Land," "The National Anthem," and other patriotic works that have a poetic flair. Complementary picture books showing images of our nation and the diversity therein are shared. We evaluate the meaning of each patriotic verse so that the words are not just recited, but understood. On a day-to-day basis, we delve into our narrative selections. We begin with Patricia Polacco's "Mr. Lincoln's Way" and Helen Lester's "Hooway for Wodney Wat," stories that accentuate embracing diversity. [Note: I wrote a grant that allowed me to provide a hard copy of each book noted herein to all of my students. With copyright permission granted and for teaching purposes only, these works can be alternatively presented in acetate format and projected onto a screen or Smart Board for reading instructional use.] ) Through shared reading and interactive read aloud, the children are introduced to the narrative voice. My young learners follow the storyline, zeroing in on the plot and overarching significance of the story theme. We subsequently map out and summarize the story. The children become active listeners, engrossed in the storytelling experience.
After having been immersed in the stories, I introduce our complementary poetry selections. Before beginning, I ask, "What makes a poem a poem?" The children respond providing their own interpretation. Using a K-W-L chart, I record their initial responses and subsequently share that I will introduce two poetic works: "I Am America and America Is Me" by African American author/photographer Charles R. Smith, Jr. and Russian-American poet/editor Arnold Adoff's "Black Is Brown Is Tan."
"I am America…" the poem—written in vivid letters and strategically differentiated-sized fonts—boldly begins. I read Smith's poem aloud using much intonation and expression as defined by the typeface and page layout. The lines assertively herald what it is to be American including everything from "being
, diverse, soft-spoken, and
" to wearing "big baggy jeans,
, blue denim jackets, and
backwards baseball caps
" Rich in alliteration, short phrases, simile, and rhyme, the rhythmic work is metaphorically descriptive and energetic. Soft vowel sounds layered in rhythmic patterns within key and bolded words bring power to the text. "I am" accompanied by phrases that epitomize American style are repeated throughout, somewhat like the repetitive lines in a blues song or rap lyrics, placing emphasis on being a citizen of the U.S.A. Complemented by vivid photos of children across cultures, the work engages young readers to embrace one another as a diverse, American family—united. Young learners pick up on how some words are written in bolded letters and others in different font-sizes. They observe punctuation and phrasing, noting that the way the words are depicted impacts their sound. These attributes also help them put the accent on differences and "how cool yet common" our differences are. The words force readers see and hear that we have more in common with one another than not.
Autobiographic in content, I subsequently share Adoff's melodic work, which goes on to lyrically describe an interracial family relationship:
black is brown is tan
is girl is boy
is nose is face
is all the colors of the race…
Adoff's story-poem too melodically conveys a powerful message that loving, caring relationships know no color-boundaries—that we as a human family should come to embrace and value one another from the inside out. "Black Is Brown Is Tan" too is brimming with short phrases interspersed with lengthier lines, rhyme, consonance, assonance, simile, and onomatopoeia which give a feel of love dancing all around you. It also uses unconventional punctuation, i.e., the use of the lower case "i" throughout the piece that accentuates the insignificance of color and individuality as it pertains to human interaction.
After reading the two works, I ask the children to highlight what they notice about the sound of each poem. Again, I record their responses on our K-W-L chart. I highlight that poems contain literary elements that help to convey thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a literal or figurative form. Those elements include but are not limited to the use of simile, metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, onomatopoeia, and cadence (i.e., beats in measured patterns). I note that poems also contain choice vocabulary, structured sentences and phrases (diction and syntax) specially selected by the author to help the reader experience that key message or image. Together, these elements create sound, and those sounds help to awaken the senses, causing the reader to experience time, place, action, emotion, and/or idea as it pertains to the poetic work.
As I read each poem, I encourage my young learners to listen closely and observe how the words are spoken based on the way they are situated on each page. Listening intently, my students are able to identify the narrator of the poem and the narrator's voice. I marvel at how they immediately connect with the
of each poem. They indicate that the flowing words in both "I Am America and America Is Me" and "Black Is Brown Is Tan" spark a sense of
: Words and sound collectively help them connect to internal feelings, personal experiences, and snippets of life as each verse progresses. I extend an invitation for my children to read along; they delight in the experience, giggling their way through the onomatopoeia, the similes, and metaphors that fill the air. We have fun revisiting each line and evaluating the meaning behind the words. I have whetted their whistle, letting my young learners know that through poetry, they can learn about themselves, others, and the commonalities between us. I too have laid the foundation for a teaching approach that will be revisited during the second and third quarter of the school year.
And So We Begin
Throughout the implementation of my curriculum unit, the overarching objectives will be to (1) introduce young learners to poetry and narrative works written by and/or about African Americans during 20
centuries; (2) help children grasp that the sound of poetry can be used to convey emotions, illustrate images and facets of life, and/or tell a story; (3) help young learners recognize that poetry consists of tones, rhythm, descriptive images and sound that collectively help to experience emotion and meaning; (4) help young learners make text-to-self-to-world connections using the sounds of poetry; (5) strengthen reading and reading comprehension skills via poetic voice; (6) develop prosody and fluency skills; and (7) create a classroom learning community built on experiencing, respecting, and celebrating one another across cultures.
Several poetry selections noted herein are accessible on-line and made reference to throughout this unit. Lessons will be implemented for an 8-to-10 week duration, three days per week for 50 minutes per session adhering to the following format:
Day 1. Using children's book narrative resources, conduct an interactive read-aloud session to provide background information regarding the time period and/or historic moment in American history. Where necessary, refer to maps, artwork, and photographic images to help students get a sense of place as it pertains to covered info. Encourage students to place themselves in the shoes of the characters, to use inference strategies to deduce what life might have been like during the noted time period. Have students engage in small group dialogue and call upon them to respond to key questions, strengthening their use of logical thinking, reading comprehension, and verbal skills.
Day 2. Introduce students to corresponding poems that complement the Day 1 activity. Introduce key vocabulary words prior to sharing the poem. Zero in on the sound of the poetic work. Assemble students in groups of 3 to 4 and provide them opportunities to collaboratively brainstorm on the main idea of the poem, using key words and/or phrases from the text to support their response. Have students further substantiate their understanding by connecting the sound and word structure of the piece with noted events and/or feelings and images they evoke.
Day 3. During small group instruction, have students revisit and identify the significance of each poem, with emphasis on the main idea and author's craft. Include copies of the poems in the Prosody Station for ongoing review and practice in enhancing fluency, intonation, and oral expression skills. Extension activities can be included.
Meet the Author: This extension activity can be implemented during centers or given as an alternative classwork or homework assignment. After exploring the poem and the significance behind it, have students examine the life of the poet. (Refer to on-line biographic resources or create your own differentiated instructional handouts.) Have small student groups collaboratively discuss/argue/infer how the author's life may have influenced the poetic creation. This activity will help reinforce the use of logical thinking, oracy,reading, and reading comprehension skills while familiarizing students with new authors.