Use Poetry to Teach About Identity

Ideas for Celebrating National Poetry Month

This resource was originally designed for use in a face-to-face setting. For tips on teaching with poetry in a remote or hybrid learning environment, check out our Slow Down with the Slowdown Routine.

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month, a time when schools, libraries, poets, writers, and publishers could come together in a nationwide celebration to honor the legacy of our nation’s and world’s poetry and poets. In the words of the US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Poetry is quiet, private, meditative, and rather than summing things up in pat and predictable ways, it surprises and deepens our sense of the ordinary. Poetry tells us that the world is full of wonder, revelation, consolation, and meaning. It reminds us that our inner lives deserve time, space, and attention.”1

In a Facing History and Ourselves classroom, poetry can help students explore and connect with issues of identity, group membership, and belonging, as well as provide models and inspiration for how they might tell their own stories.

The following ideas provide ways that you and your students can join the National Poetry Month celebration by weaving poetry into your curriculum not just in April, but throughout the year.

Most Facing History units begin with an exploration of the relationship between the individual and society, how that relationship influences our identities, and how it affects the choices we make. Poetry can provide a powerful point of entry into that exploration. To help students grapple with the complexities of identity, consider teaching one or more of the following poems from Facing History resources, in which poets write about the challenges they face navigating dual identities.

  • In Two Names, Two Worlds, Jonathan Rodríguez moves between English and Spanish to explore his name, what it means to him, and what it suggests about him to others.
  • In The Search for My Tongue, Sujata Bhatt writes in English and her native Gujarati, using language to help explore the challenges that come with trying to synthesize a singular identity from multiple cultures without losing key aspects of either one.
  • In I Lost My Talk, Rita Joe, a Mi’kmaw poet and songwriter, shares her experience of being forced to give up her native language while attending the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia following the death of her mother.

To teach these poems, you might use one or more of the Read Aloud strategies. Because the poems are short, students will benefit from reading and hearing the poems read aloud multiple times. As they become familiar with the poems’ themes and purposes, you might ask them to consider how they can use the tone of their voices, pauses, and pacing to help capture the meaning when reading aloud.

To help students process each poem, consider having them respond to a question about the poem or its theme in their journals or select one or more lines to share in a Save the Last Word for Me discussion.

Students can use these poems as models for their own identity poems. You might invite your multilingual students to explore how expressing their ideas in two or more languages can help them explore the different facets of their identity and the challenges they might face at home, in school, and in their communities as they move through their worlds navigating different languages and cultures.

Check Out These Additional Resources for National Poetry Month Activities

For the month of April, the Academy of American Poets offers a number of ways that you and your students can join the National Poetry Month celebration. In addition to Poem-a-Day, you might also invite your students to participate in the Dear Poet Project, where students write letters in response to reading or hearing poems by award-winning poets. Or you might work with a group of interested students to plan a school-wide initiative that celebrates Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 26, 2018. Imagine a day where students and staff all carry poems to read aloud to each other in the classrooms, hallways, and cafeteria at your school!

This teaching idea was created to celebrate National Poetry Month. For more ideas on how to use poetry in the classroom, view the teaching idea How to Bring Spoken Word Poetry into the Classroom.


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