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Category Archives: Lesson Plans

On Langston Hughes – Black History Month Tribute to a Great Poet

via On Langston Hughes – Black History Month Tribute to a Great Poet

Melba posted a wonderful poem, Mother to Son, written by legendary African-American poet, Langston Hughes.

I used Langston Hughes’s poetry in our poetry unit each year. The metaphor of life as a staircase, sometimes smooth and other times unevern, seemed to fit junior high students. My students responded to it well.

Another aspect of including his work and Maya Angelou‘s poetry was around the issue of civil rights. In Grade 7, we read the book The Cay, by Theodore Taylor who dedicated it to Martin Luther King shortly after he was assassinated, about the relationship of a young white boy and an elderly black man to discuss what being well-educated meant. I included my mother’s line, which was “who would you rather be lost in the wilderness, someone who read about it or an indigenous person, with no schooling, who lived it?”

In Grade 8, we exoplored civil rights through the lens of heros. I let students choose, but some struggled with this choice. Knowing my students well, I introduced them to Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, and Wilma Rudolph, if they were interested in sports. Others, who came from religious families, I encouraged them to consider Martin Luther King  and Mother Teresa. If they were interested in people who stood for the rights of the oppressed, but might not be considered a religious person we talked about Nelson Mandela and Mahatama Gandhi. Regardless, I found, when I tapped into who each student was, colour, ethnicity, and gender dissolved and wonderful projects emerged.

Another Hughes’s poem we read was Dream Deferred, is sprinked with questions from beginning to end:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Here, is a video of the poem read by the poet.

On Wiesel’s Night

Several years before I retired from teaching, a family approached me and asked me to tutor their child. Usually, I don’t tutor. Too often, it is about prepping for a test and is too rote for me.

After talking with the family and student, I agreed. The student was behind in some courses and wanted to be ready to transition from home schooling to attending high school full-time.

I helped her mostly in Math and Language Arts. I approach Language Arts through a cross subject method. I choose a novel and prepare a novel study. The students demonstrate comprehension, writing, grammatical, and other skills, instead of drill and kill method.

We discussed several possible choices for a novel study and decided on Elie Wiesel‘s Night, which is an autobiographical narrative of his time as a teenager in Nazi concentration camps with his family. I warned the student it was a tough read, but she insisted on the book. I asked her to read only assigned chapters and keep a journal.

The next week, she asked a question and confessed she read the whole book in one sitting. She asked if was OK to cry when doing a novel study. I said it was. We adapted and went through the book in a different way.

What I learned from that experience, is as hard as we try, as parents and teachers, there are things we cannot prepare children for in advance. This poem by Thomas E. Thornton, who was a teacher, echoed those sentiments. The poem is hard to read, but he wanted to impress upon students an appreciation for the horrors and violence of war.

I cannot teach this book.  Instead,

I drop copies on their desks,

like bombs on sleeping towns,

and let them read.  So do I, again.

The stench rises from the page

and chokes my throat.

The ghosts of burning babies

haunt my eyes.

And that bouncing baton,

that pointer of Death,

stabs me in the heart

as it sends his mother

to the blackening sky.

Nothing is destroyed

the laws of science say,

only changed.

The millions transformed into

precious smoke ride the wind

to fill our lungs and hearts

with their cries.

No, I cannot teach this book.

I simply want the words

to burn their comfortable souls

and leave them scarred for life.

 

A Bee

When I taught poetry, I included haiku and writing them overlapped with our Social Studies curriculum. Bashō was a traditional Japanese poets in a Social Studies unit. As well, I asked students to draw pictures to add richness to their poetry.

Several parents and one administrator questioned the value of writing haiku. I told them it was finding the right word to express one’s self. That was enough for most adults, but the administrator and one parent did not get it. What is ironic is both make their living speaking publicly and I think writing haiku might be helpful.

I chose this haiku, because quite often we struggle to give up things we do not do well and seek the comfort of safe places. In this case, the bee is comfortable in the peony and is reluctant to leave.

Usually, the students enjoyed writing poetry and understood the benefits. Several students used poetry to keep notes in other classes. The students were concerned about the 5-7-5 syllable pattern than actually writing poetry. I told them to get their broad ideas down, find new words, and massage the pattern into place. They took their time and learned how to use a syllabus in the process.

How reluctantly

the bee emerges from deep

within the peony

Anatomy Class

Today, I looked for a poem and, after some searching, settled on this one by Betsy Franco. I had not heard of her before, but the poem is interesting. I wondered what my students would have thought of it.

The poem is playful and inviting. People want to play and explore the world they inhabit with others and we are often left surprised by what we discover.

Franco points out the paradox of the words we use and inanimate objects like chairs, clocks, and kites come alive. Perhaps, in the minds of children, they do live. Maybe words and language are less of an impediment to children. They are present to a world that is fantastic and subject to a myriad of interpretations.

The chair has

arms.

The clock,

a face.

The kites have

long and twirly tails.

The tacks have

heads.

The books have

spines.

The toolbox has

a set of nails.

Our shoes have

tongues,

the marbles,

eyes.

The wooden desk has

legs and seat.

The cups have

lips.

My watch has

hands.

The classroom rulers all have

feet.

Heads, arms hands, nails,

spines, legs, feet, tails,

face, lips, tongues, eyes.

What a surprise!

 

Is our classroom alive?

Do Pigs Have Udders?

The last year I taught I was away for a week in the fall. When I returned, the students told me they had not enjoyed the substitute teacher. They felt he did not let them chat and told them their conversations were inappropriate. As those students rarely crossed the line between appropriate and inappropriate, I was surprise and asked for an example of a conversation topic.

As they did their Science one day a student asked another if pigs had udders. They felt the conversation was proper and it fit with biology and animal husbandry. One girl, who lived on a farm, insisted they did and the other, who lived in town, said they did not. They asked me if I knew. I laughed and told them I did not know.

Initially, I phoned Kathy who was raised on a farm. She said pigs might have udders, but, if they did, it was a result of a biologic need to nurse offspring. Over the years, the topic came up. A farmer told me farmers don’t ask questions like that, because they don’t really care. Last summer, I read this poem at a retreat and described what had happened. A colleague did a search and informed us pigs do not have udders.

The experience informed me in two ways as a teacher. First, it pointed out an irrevocable truth: human curiosity and questions without absolute answers are essential in living and learning. Second, humans require safe spaces to ask questions like this.

A simple question

Eloquently posed,

It lacks a ready answer

Our curiosity is engaged;

Fueling our learning and conversations.

What does something mean?

Is it true?

Many queries;

We seek to fill gaps–

Certitude is elusive;

Uncertainty prevails.

Years later

I smile and chuckle;

I (re)member–

I appreciate–

A simple, provocative question–

Do pigs have udders?

People can ask the darnedest things. Humour is a cure for even the most challenging moments. It opens up safe spaces for questions to emerge.

 

Types of Rose Flower by Color – Red Rose Bud

Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly. Dreams by Langston Hughes

Source: Types of Rose Flower by Color – Red Rose Bud

When I taught, I used this poem and Mother to Son written by Langston Hughes. The two poems carry deep thematic meanings about living life, having dreams to follow, and not making excuses when we come up short. I found that for junior high students these themes were important and helped them focus on how they were becoming adults.

Dreams give us a way to imagine we can figuratively fly in life. Mother to Son reminded us that it was not always easy to follow those dreams.

The red rose buds in the pictures add to the imagery about how fragile dreams are in real-time. We need to nurture them and bring them to life as we feed them.

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

Making Peace

Denise Levertov wrote this wonderful and I think it is a good way to bring my week to an end as I head to Sabbath. Stephen at Grow Mercy posted this earlier and I did try to share it with those who follow my blog. It did not make it over and this was the next best thing I could do to get it to you folks. Take a moment and visit Stephen’s blog.

I used a lesson plan with my students where we talked about a culture of war and a culture of peace. They had to describe each one and we did them separately. We have many more words that come to mind when we talk about peace. I filled whiteboard, they would share for an hour, be disappointed when it was over, and the quiet ones were always present. There is a presence in peace. The students ran out of ways to describe a culture of war very quickly.

A voice from the dark called out,

“The poets must give us

imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar

imagination of disaster. Peace, not only

the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,

is not there ahead of itself,

can’t be imagined before it is made,

in the words of its making,

grammar of justice

syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,

dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have

until we begin to utter its metaphors,

learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear

if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,

revoked its affirmation of profit and power,

questioned our needs, allowed

long pauses. …

A cadence of peace might balance its weight

on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,

an energy field more intense than war,

might pulse then,

stanza by stanza entering the world,

each act living

one of its words, each word

a vibration of light–facets

of the forming crystal.

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