Activities will help students:
- develop their understanding of what a poem is and gain strategies for reading poetry
- practice working with different forms of poetic language and structure
- engage in the steps of the writing process, including developing skills for providing constructive feedback to their peers’ writing
- make connections between poetry and racial identity issues
- What is poetry? How is poetry similar to and different from other sorts of written language?
- What is identity? How does our personal sense of identity relate (or not relate) to our skin color, race and sense of beauty?
- How have other poets used language to express their sense of themselves as beautiful, as well as their sense of racial identity?
- How can we most effectively express our sense of identity through poetry? How can we use beautiful language to show how we feel beautiful?
- chart paper
- individual notebooks or journals
- children’s poetry or appropriate adult poetry as available in the classroom library (Note: You will want to make sure you have a diverse set of poetry available for this activity. If your library collection is limited, use the poets listed in the “Professional Development” section to gather a varied collection.)
- watercolor paper
Race, skin color and beauty are complicated concepts to understand cognitively. In many ways, they can be even more challenging for children to untangle emotionally. Each child has a unique relationship to these themes, and the relationships are rarely simple. Writing poetry is an important way for young children to express thoughts and feelings. Thinking about poetic language allows us to see the beauty in ourselves and others as we work with the beauty of words.
This lesson helps children develop their skills for poetic expression while working toward a more intricate and productive understanding of race, racial identity and their own concept of beauty. By reading poetry that is concerned with social justice and by writing poetic self-portraits, students will deepen their understandings of the many different ways to recognize beauty.
Reading and writing poetry with children can be a rich experience. Some helpful guidance for incorporating poetry can be found in Awakening the Heart by Georgia Heard, Poetry Matters: Writing Poetry from the Inside Out by Robert Fletcher, and Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom by Katie Wood Ray. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up by Linda Christensen describes the concept of relating reading and writing poetry to themes of social justice.
Countless poets have written on themes of racial identity. Here are nine: Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Walter Dean Myers, Julia Alvarez, Martin Espada, Audre Lorde and Gary Soto. Reading the work of these and other poets forms a framework to help students write poetry with racial themes.
color [kuhl-er] (noun) the natural appearance of something, including how bright it is and what shade it is
skin [skin] (noun) the outer covering of a human or animal body
skin color [skin kuhl-er] (noun) the coloring of a person’s face and skin
race [reys] (noun) one of the major groups into which human beings can be divided. As a social construction, it relates to the grouping of people based on physical characteristics, such as skin color, often for the purpose of creating the perception of a superior race. (Note: There are many different ways to define the term “race.” We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson and series of lessons is for students to come to individual and collective understandings of the term that make sense to them and their personal, developmental and communal needs.)
beauty [BYOO-tee] (noun) the part of a person (or thing) that makes us like how he or she looks (Note: There are many different ways to define the term “beauty.” We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson and series of lessons is for students to come to their own understanding of the term and concept.)
identity [ahy-DEN-ti-tee] (noun) the sense people have of themselves, who they are, and what they feel is most important and defining about themselves
poetry [POH-ih-tree] (noun) written work usually defined by particular beauty, excitement, freedom of verse or particular poetic structures
- What is poetry? What is a poem? How is poetry different from other types of language? Discuss these questions with your class. If the study of poetry is new to your class, read aloud, do a read-around or allot some time for independent reading of a variety of poetry to help them understand the genre’s flexibility. Use the poems students read to help them talk about how poets utilize writing to express themselves or to understand themselves better.
- Explain that one part of how we think of ourselves—a part of our identity—is how we think about our skin color and our race. To some people, this is an important part of identity; to other people, it’s less important. Explain that we all have many facets to our identity. These might include personal abilities and interests, life experiences, family history and structure, culture and religion. Help students understand how complex identity can be, but then explain that, as in the other lessons in this series, you will be focusing on racial identity. In their notebooks, help students write a list of five to six words that describe their race or skin color. (Note: This is a good time to come back to your class’s developing understanding of race. Remind them what they learned through previous lessons, and explain that the creative process will be a chance for them to express their own feelings about racial identity and develop their own contributions to the definition of the term. Encourage them to push beyond generalizations or stereotypes.) If students cannot come up with that many, list a few other words, such as deep or warm. (Note: In preliterate classes, you may want to perform this activity as a whole group.) Have students share their lists with a partner.
- Tell children that poets sometimes use their poetry to create written self-portraits and to express their identity. Allow students to read or listen to a variety of poems about race, racial identity or identity in general. Encourage them to think about the words and strategies these poets use to express themselves.
- Have the students review their original lists of words. Each student should choose one or two words from the list that he or she thinks are especially poetic. Using inspiration from the poetry you read as a class, have students draft one or more poems describing themselves. At least part of the poem should focus on their race or skin color, or their understanding of how these concepts apply to their identities—they can talk about other things, too. Encourage students to use comparisons or unusual language to describe themselves as fully and poetically as possible. Remind them, though, that being poetic does not necessarily mean using a lot of words—you can use only a few to get across very powerful ideas. (Note: If your students have worked on poetry in the past, draw on prior knowledge about the genre as they write.)
- Come together as a class. Discuss some important dos and don’ts of reading and commenting on another person’s writing. Some helpful tips can be found at the National Council of Teachers of English website. Chart guidelines that students come up with, then form groups of four to five to share each other’s poems. Each poet should receive at least two specific compliments and one specific suggestion from the group.
- Using what they know about the writing process, have students revise and edit their poems.
- Allow children to publish their poems on watercolor paper using a permanent marker. When the marker has dried, they can watercolor over it to make their poems beautiful. (Note: You can bind the students’ poetry together in a class book or display them in your classroom or on a bulletin board.) Allow time for students to read their classmates’ work and celebrate the wonderful identity poetry they created.
Applying What You've Learned
Think about what you have learned about race, skin color, beauty and identity through the creation of poetry. In your journal, respond to the following questions:
- Why can poetry be an especially useful medium for expressing ideas around race, skin color, beauty and identity?
- How did your thinking about these concepts change as you worked on your poetry?
- If you were going to write a series of poems, what would you write? Why?
- What was challenging about this activity? Explain.
It is not unusual for the work of one particular poet to really stand out to us. Choose one poem from your classroom collection that really gave you a special feeling. Think about why that poem meant so much to you. With your teacher’s help or at home, find a few more poems by the same poet. Read them many times and try to understand why they are special to you. Then, when you feel you know them well, challenge yourself to write a poem that feels like it is in the same style as the poetry of your favorite poet.
Some people believe that poetry cannot be effectively translated from one language to another. Find a children’s or adult poem from your home language. See if you can translate it into English. Does it seem as beautiful to you? You can also translate an English poem into your home language. Now try translating your own poem. What is your opinion about whether poetry can be translated? Share your experience and opinions with a partner or with your class.
Common Core State Standards, English Language Arts: CCSS: SL.1, SL.4, SL.6, W.3, W.4, W.5