Maya Angelou

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Objectives: 

Activities will help students:

  • Examine how imagery can be used to represent ideas, themes and periods of history
  • Find cultural relevance and text-to-self connections to the poem, “Still I Rise”
  • Reflect on resiliency in their own lives, school and community
  • Determine the origins of their “voice” and for what they would like to use it

Essential Questions: 

  • How do I respond when faced with tough circumstances?
  • How have my background and experiences contributed to the person I have become?
  • What struggles and obstacles have I, and others who share my cultural background, had to overcome?
  • How and why does society continue to put down certain groups?
  • For what do I want my “voice” to be used?

Materials Needed: 

Introduction

Students will learn about Maya Angelou, a famous poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist. Angelou experienced the brutality of racial discrimination as a youth. She became active with Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and helped him build his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Throughout her life, she overcame hardship and discrimination to find her own voice and to influence others to believe in themselves and use their voices for positive change. In this lesson, students read and analyze Maya Angelou’s famous poem, “Still I Rise,” and apply its message to their own lives.

Central Text

Procedure

Word Work

Authors often use imagery to create comparisons between literal and figurative elements, add depth and understanding to a literary piece, and evoke a more meaningful experience for the reader. Examining Maya Angelou’s masterful use of imagery throughout the poem “Still I Rise” can help you understand and interpret the poem’s theme and message.

  1. Before reading the poem, define or review definitions for the following elements of imagery: personification, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia and hyperbole. Definitions can be found here.
  2. Read “Still I Rise” in its entirety. (Note: Either print it out or have students read online.)
  3. Use a highlighter to identify examples of imagery in the poem.
  4. Divide into small groups, Each group should select one of the poem’s stanzas to analyze. 
  5. Using the images from ‘Still I Rise’” activity sheet, list each example of imagery in your stanza, the type of imagery used and what you believe the element of imagery represents in the poem’s theme. For example, the sun—an element of nature that continues to rise despite any other circumstances—in stanza three might represent African Americans’ resilience in the face of racism and discrimination or Maya Angelou’s resiliency despite a difficult childhood.
  6. Once you have finished, present your group’s interpretation of your stanza to the rest of the class. Encourage other groups to add to your interpretation.
  7. Once all groups have presented, combine with another group and draw conclusions about how the imagery in the poem contributes to the poem’s overall message.

Close and Critical Reading

Although we know the author of “Still I Rise” is Maya Angelou, the speaker, audience and topic of the poem are less clear. Readers are free to develop their own interpretations. Your interpretation may be dependent on your own cultural identity, experiences and knowledge, and it may be different than the interpretation of your classmates.

  1. Poems are often best interpreted by first reading them aloud. Pair up with a partner. Take turns reading the poem aloud while your partner listens. What emotions do you hear in your partner’s interpretation? Did you read the poem in a similar manner or differently?
  2. Annotate the poem with your partner using the following questions:
  • Who do you think the speaker/narrator of the poem is? Is it a person? A cultural group? Identify words or phrases that help you identify the speaker/narrator.
  • How does the speaker/narrator seem to feel about herself (or itself)? Draw a face that represents that emotion (e.g., a smiley face, sad face or angry face) next to a word phrase that exhibits it. Have you ever felt that way about yourself? If so, share with your partner what makes you feel that way.
  • To whom do you think the poem is directed? Highlight words and phrases that support your answers and share them with your partner.
  • What message is the writer trying to give to the person or group to which she is writing? Have you ever had to give a similar message to someone? If so, when?
  • What do you believe the poem’s overall theme is? Examples include hopelessness, strength, resiliency, spirit and anger. Write the theme you have identified at the top of the poem. Then draw an arrow to a word or phrase from the poem that supports that theme.
  • Do you see this poem in a historical context? If so, explain that context to your partner.
  • Finally, consider and share with your partner how your own knowledge, experiences and cultural identify influence the way you have chosen to interpret the poem. Have you interpreted it differently than your partner?

Community Inquiry

Now that you have annotated the text, talk with others in the class about it. Divide into two groups. Set up the room with two concentric circles of chars—one large circle of chairs and a second, larger circle of chairs outside of it. One group will sit in the inner circle and one group will sit in the outer circle. Each student should bring a copy of the poem.

  • Your teacher will ask a question of those in the inner circle only. Those in the outer circle will observe the discussion and be prepared to summarize what they have heard.
  • Take a few minutes to think about your answer. You can use the notes from the activity above if you would like.
  • Go around the circle, letting each person answer the question.
  • After everyone has had a chance to answer, you can respond to what has been said. If you disagree with someone’s answer, this is your chance to explain. You might want to connect to something in your own experience or raise a related question.
  • The inner circle group should answer the first two questions and then ask the outer circle group to summarize what they heard.
  • Then the groups should switch and the outer circle group should become the inner circle group and answer the third and fourth questions.

Follow this procedure for these four questions:

  • In what way(s) do you personally connect with this poem?
  • To what “gifts that my ancestors gave” is the author referring? What gifts were you given from ancestors or people in your cultural group who came before you?
  • Which groups, either in society or at your school, are “shot with words,” “cut with eyes” or “killed with hatefulness?” How is this received? What can be done to change it?
  • You are part of many different groups, such as your family, your cultural group, your religious group and your gender group. Share an example of how you have faced adversity as part of one of these groups and if/how you have risen up against it.

Write to the Source

Maya Angelou is one of the most influential voices of our time. However, she had a turbulent childhood. After her parents’ divorce, she was sent to live with her grandmother in racially divided Stamps, Arkansas, where she experienced the brutality of racial discrimination. She also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African-American family, community and culture.

After being sent back to live with her mother, she was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s friend. She confided the abuse to her brother, leading to the rapist’s arrest. Upon getting out of jail, the rapist was killed, many believe by Maya’s uncles. She believed her voice killed him since she told her brother of the crime. Subsequently she went mute for nearly six years. She was then sent back to live with her grandmother where a teacher helped her regain her voice, her confidence and her pride. She went on to become an author, actress, journalist, civil rights worker and teacher, using her voice for positive change.

Think about the following questions. Then write a letter, poem, blog, rap song or journal entry that answers them.

  • From where does your voice come: your family, your culture, your beliefs, your friends, your experiences?
  • For what would you like to use your voice, now and in the future?

Do Something

Work with your school counselor and other stakeholders to champion and create a “Still I Rise” club or group at your school dedicated to helping students find their voices and overcome adversity. The club could simply be a place for students to find resources or it could be a more complex, peer-to-peer support network. (Note: Some schools may only authorize clubs that are connected to a national organization, e.g., Amnesty International.)

Extension Activity: 

Research Maya Angelou’s biography, including the work she did for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.