“OU shuts down fraternity after racist chant.” (CBS News)
“U.N. reveals ‘alarmingly high’ levels of violence against women.” (The New York Times)
These are news headlines from March 2015. There is still much to be done in improving the human condition. Maya Angelou stated, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” How can teachers help young people celebrate, value, and advocate for diversity? We need to go beyond the tolerance and appreciation rhetoric.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a great American poet. Her work challenged the status quo and improved the human condition of all people. She fought for equality and for humanity. In her body of work, we see the plights and triumphs of a marginalized people. Angelou, like many other poets, used words to tell her story of struggle.
In engaging in a “poet study” of poets like Maya Angelou, students will gain powerful insights into the human condition. The following are suggested steps to implement a “poet study” in your classroom:
- Step One - Choose a poet to study. Other examples of poets who have examined the human condition include: Cathy Song, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, Sandra Cisneros, Willie Perdomo, Rita Dove, native Garrett Hongo, Joy Harjo, etc.
- Step Two – Have students learn about the historical, political, and social contexts of the poet’s life. (This can be completed in conjunction with a social studies lesson.)
- Step Three - Have students read several poems by the poet. Ask students: What does the poem literally mean? (This may require students to carefully annotate each line via close reading.)
- Step Four: – Have students consider the contexts when answering the following questions: What are some interpretations of the poem’s meanings? Why did the poet feel this way? What inspired the writing of the poem? What is the poet saying about the human condition and how do you know?
- Step Five – Have students present their information via report, presentation, poster, etc.
Poems tend to be short texts. In this way, they are accessible and appealing to young readers. However, poems offer textual challenges in other ways. Poems are puzzles – their meanings are often not explicit. Students may need support via modeling and scaffolding.
The following resources will help classroom teachers and their students celebrate National Poetry Month and poetry any month of the year. These particular resources focus on marginalized voices and help further our understanding of the human condition:
- High school teacher, Chris Mazzino uses poetry to teach students to explore the human condition. Specifically, the students examine what it feels like to be an outsider. In Teaching ‘The Children of Willesden Lane,’ “Gaining Insight Through Poetry,” students reflect on why people are marked as “different.”
- Students can compare how poets use images of a city to describe the human condition. In American Passages, students examine several poems in “Rhythms in Poetry:” Students consider how Eliot’s London, Sandburg’s Chicago, and Hughes’s Harlem all represent particular interpretations of the city and the modern condition.
Poetry is powerful. Robert Frost wrote, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
How have you used poetry to help further students’ understanding of the human condition?