Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 6: Historical and Cultural Context - Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Connecting History and Poetry
Field Tips
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Teaching Strategies
Connecting History and Poetry


Stanlee Brimberg uses poetry in three different ways to "breathe life" into his class's study of the African Burial Ground. First he asks the students to read Langston Hughes's poetry, to steep them in the voice and themes of an African American poet. Using Hughes as a model, the students then write their own poems to reflect their personal understanding of the burial ground and its legacy.

Connecting History and Poetry in Stanlee Brimberg's Classroom

Before introducing poetry, Brimberg asks the students to look at photographs of skeletons exhumed from the African Burial Ground. He tells them to use "a little archaeology, a little social studies, and your imaginations" to answer questions about these skeletons. His major goal, he says, is to show the students that "there was a life, with texture and dimension" represented by each skeleton.

Brimberg then gives each group a selection of Langston Hughes's poems, commenting that he has chosen Hughes because he "wrote his poems from the point of view of someone who is being taken advantage of, discriminated against, or in pain because he or she was an African American. Hughes is giving voice to people who didn't have voices at the time they lived." Brimberg then invites his students to select a poem and read it aloud. He tells them that they will be writing poems, modeled, if they like, on those of Langston Hughes.

To begin writing poems, the students choose a photograph of a skeleton. Each student then imagines what the everyday life of that person might have been like. To do this, the students synthesize information from Langston Hughes's poetry, a documentary, factual texts, and their interview with historian and author Christopher Moore.

Brimberg tells the students they can start wherever they choose -- with the photograph, historical information, or an idea. They can write either about or as the person they chose. Brimberg gives them a handout to structure their poetry-writing process.

After Brimberg's students draft their poems, they read them aloud and the class offers positive feedback on each one. The students are also asked to share their writing process in terms of the conception and composition of the poem. (They critique the poems later in small groups.) Brimberg shows the students a copy of a much-edited draft of a Langston Hughes poem to impress upon them that writing is a process, even for someone of Hughes's stature and talent. (See Student Work.)

Brimberg also introduces writer-artist Barbara Chase-Riboud's "Africa Rising," a poem that accompanies her sculpture at the African Burial Ground memorial site. Although the poem is challenging, Brimberg asks the students to alternate reading stanzas aloud before the field trip. Brimberg focuses them on the last line, "All biographies become one." "What might that mean?" he asks. "Does a tragedy like slavery or the Holocaust lump people together? Could that be a positive as well as a negative thing? How?" This discussion prepares the students to consider how memorials remember both a group and individuals.

Tips and Variations for Connecting History and Poetry

  • Teachers should look for poetry that is both representative of the topic being studied and accessible to the student population. Langston Hughes's poetry, for example, speaks both to students of different levels and to the topic of African American history and culture.

  • Students can make poetic meaning of a historical text by creating "found poems." The teacher can give them a text with rich or colorful descriptions. As they read, they can underline or circle what seems most important, vivid, or interesting. The teacher should then ask the students to reorder the words -- spacing them in an interesting way, repeating crucial words or phrases, or putting words together in surprising ways. The teacher should ask the students to read these aloud and compare them with the original text.

  • The teacher can have the students put prose and poetic accounts of a historical event side by side, and ask the students to compare each writer's use of voice, word choice, or sentence structure. The students can then write a dialogue between the author of the prose account and the author of the poem.

Benefits of Connecting History and Poetry

  • As students explore the lyrical aspects of language, they find new modes of expression that deepen their understanding and appreciation of historical events.

  • Poetry can help bring remote times and places to life.

  • Having students respond to historical study by writing a poem synthesizes their thoughts about what they have learned.

  • Working with poetic elements -- word choice, rhythm, voice, etc. -- can teach students to be more careful writers in other contexts.

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