On January 20, 2021, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman made history as the country’s youngest inaugural poet. Only four previous presidents have invited poets to speak at their inaugurations, lending their voices and visions for the country to these historic moments.
Gorman—poet, activist, and author—has been speaking on issues of social justice since she was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles. In a 2017 The Project for Women interview, having just been named America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman reflected on the power of poetry, explaining, “The fight for social injustice not only inspires my writing but my life’s work. Through poetry I can speak to both the world’s problems and its solutions, as well as the microcosms of conflict inside myself. I love writing poetry because it is innately cutting-edge; as a black female poet, every time I take the stage I have a new opportunity to defy limitations placed on the art, contributions, and leadership of creative women of color.”1
Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb,” is a powerful call to action focusing on themes of hope, unity, healing, and resilience. In this Teaching Idea, students reflect on these themes and consider how their own unique experiences and voices can help America “forge a union with purpose.”
Help students learn about the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and examine her ideas about unity and “forg[ing] a union with purpose” as a class.
Share a few highlights from the LA Times article How a 22-year old L.A. native became Biden’s inauguration poet with your students.2
So that students can hear Amanda Gorman’s voice, play an excerpt of the video of her recitation of “The Hill We Climb” from 00:00-01:35. Then project or distribute the following excerpt:
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose3
Read aloud this section of the poem two times. You might ask a different student to read each line. Then read it again, asking one student to read it in full or reading it to the class yourself. Then in pairs or small groups, depending on what’s possible given social distancing, ask students to discuss the following questions:
Ask for volunteers from each pair or group to share their response to one of the questions. Responses are not intended to arrive at an answer, but rather to offer reflection on one of the poem’s core themes: unity.
To close, use the following prompt to help students think about “forg[ing] a union with purpose.”
What is the difference between a country that is perfect and a country with purpose? What three words would you use to describe an America with purpose?
Have students share their three words in a wraparound.
Remote Learning Note: During a synchronous session, share highlights about Amanda Gorman with the class or ask students to read the LA Times article independently before class. Project and read the poem to the class two times or have students volunteer to unmute themselves and read it out loud. Move students to breakout room groups of three for the discussion. They can record their ideas in a shared Google Doc or use a different online tool. For the final reflection, have students share their three words in the chat to create a Found Poem that you read aloud. Consider creating a Wordle from their ideas to share in the next synchronous class session.
Watch a recording of Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb” and then do a close reading of a section of the poem in order to consider Gorman’s call to action.
Share highlights from the LA Times article How a 22-year old L.A. native became Biden’s inauguration poet with your students.4
Watch the video of Gorman's performance (05:32) after distributing the transcript to your students. Invite students to star lines of the poem or moments in the recitation that resonate with them. Alternatively, they can jot words and images on their copy of the transcript or in their notebooks. After watching the video, give students the opportunity to reflect on the poem with the following journal prompt:
Imagine that you are going to post 1–2 lines from Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” to social media. Which line or lines would you choose and why?
Have students share their lines and why they chose them in pairs.
Invite students to take a closer look at Gorman’s masterful use of language in the middle section of the poem in order to deepen their understanding of her call to action. Start by rereading the following section or replaying the video (starting at 03:40). You can also invite volunteers to read it out loud, perhaps alternating each line.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with5
In pairs or small groups, depending on what’s possible given social distancing, have students discuss the questions below. Then have groups share their ideas in a class discussion, focusing on the call to action in the final question.
To close the lesson, read aloud the final lines of the poem to consider its impact:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it6
Ask students to answer the following question in a journal or as an exit card:
When your light shines brightest, what are you brave enough to see and what are you brave enough to be?
Remote Learning Note: Students can learn about Amanda Gorman by reading the LA Times article or listening to this NPR Morning Edition podcast interview (07:00) asynchronously. You could also ask them to bring to class something they’ve learned on their own about Gorman, perhaps from a podcast, TEDTalk, article, or video, and then share what they learned in the chat as a warm-up during a synchronous session. Then watch the video together and have students debrief their journal responses in triads in breakout rooms. For the close reading section, re-watch that section of the video together or read it aloud to the class before moving students to small breakout groups for their discussions. They should record their ideas in a shared document or using an online tool like a Padlet or shared whiteboard. Then they can present their ideas the class before completing the final reflection on their own, during class or asynchronously, as a follow-up activity.
For more suggested activities and tips on how to incorporate poetry into your curriculum, view the following resources:
Use Poetry to Teach About Identity
Use poetry to help students grapple with the complexities of identity and inspire them to tell their own stories.
How to Bring Spoken Word Poetry Into the Classroom
Introduce students to spoken word poetry and explore its power to give voice to issues that impact our communities.
Slow Down with the Slowdown
Use poetry to spark personal reflection and to open doors for discussion about what’s happening in students’ lives and the world.