Poetry and Power | Facing History & Ourselves
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Poetry and Power

Students explore poetry as a powerful means of creative expression.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

In the words of former 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.” Nestled within a larger literature unit, poetry can help students explore and connect with issues of identity and belonging, prejudice, and social justice, as well as provide inspiration for how they might use their voice to tell their own stories in unique and powerful ways. 

The following learning experiences invite close reading and offer opportunities for students to craft short poetic mantras, found and blackout poems, and their own original poems. The goal is not for students to create publishable or performance-ready poetry. Rather, we hope that they will consider how poetry can serve as a powerful means of creative expression that can captivate an audience and inspire change. And we hope that they will take to heart poet Amanda Gorman’s words: that poetry “is the language of people,” a language students can use to raise their voices to tell their own stories and to make themselves heard on issues that matter to them.

In order to deepen their understanding of the text, themselves, each other, and the world, students will . . .

  • Value the complexity of identity in themselves and others.
  • Engage with real and imagined stories that help them understand their own coming-of-age experiences and how others experience the world.
  • Develop the tools, efficacy, and voice to envision and enact positive changes in their personal lives, communities, and world. 
  • Demonstrate an increased sense of confidence in their ability to communicate their ideas orally and in writing.
  • Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, and appreciate texts. 
  • Participate in conversations to practice expressing ideas clearly, building on others’ ideas, and incorporating evidence from the text.
  • Use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
  • Develop and strengthen writing by planning, drafting, workshopping, and revising.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using this learning experience, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Facing History learning experiences are classroom-ready activities that you can incorporate into your lesson plans. They are designed to be modular and adaptable, so you can use them over and over again with a wide range of texts to help students explore characterization, point of view, perspective taking, setting, and thematic development through a Facing History lens.

This learning experience is divided into three sections—Introduce, Explore, and Extend—which increase in complexity and depth of analysis, but they don’t need to be used in sequence. The entry point depends on students’ familiarity with the concept and the level of complexity they are ready to tackle. Educators might choose to incorporate just one section into a lesson plan, teach all three over the course of one or two class periods, mix and match, or repeat one multiple times during a unit to help students track character or thematic development.

  1. Introduce: The first activity introduces a concept and helps students develop the schema they will need for deeper exploration. It may involve vocabulary work, schema building, and opportunities for personal reflection and pair–shares.
  2. Explore: The second activity engages students in a deeper exploration of the concept and helps them apply it to the core text of the unit. It includes opportunities for close reading, literary analysis, collaboration with peers, and rich questions for small-group and whole-class discussion about the text and how it connects to the real world.
  3. Extend: The third activity invites students to produce a reflective, expository, analytical, or creative piece of writing (or other form of expression) in order to explore connections between the text, key concepts from the learning experience, and/or their own lives.

Poetry is meant to be experienced, so whenever possible, start by watching the poet perform their poem for an audience or listening to a recording. Watch, listen to, or read aloud the poems multiple times. With each reading, invite students to annotate by writing a heart or exclamation mark by moments that resonate with them, and then have them reflect on these moments in their journals. There are more ideas for how to help students connect with the poetry they read in the Extend section of this learning experience.

If students are writing their own poems, you might have them workshop their drafts in pairs or small groups. It is important that you start with your classroom contract and establish guidelines for how students will respond to each other’s work. Author Jacqueline Woodson once offered some words of advice about sharing and feedback to an audience of middle school students: “‘I think you show it to people you trust.’ She then defined constructive criticism as feedback that ‘makes you go running back to your work and want to make it better,’ while destructive criticism ‘makes you just want to throw it away.’” 1 Woodson suggested that reviewers first say something positive about the piece of writing and then ask three questions. 

To apply Woodson’s framework to your classroom, share her advice and ask students to brainstorm ways that they can give feedback that fits Woodson’s description of constructive and not destructive criticism. Then model the workshop process using a draft of a poem you have written or the first draft of a poem you find online from a trusted source. Allow students to choose their partners, especially if writing and sharing poetry is new. Look for opportunities to celebrate students’ work so that they come to view themselves as members of a larger community of readers, writers, and thinkers.

  • 1Kaleena Black, “Who Should You Show Your Writing To?,” ed. Cheryl Lederle, Teaching with the Library of Congress (blog), February 1, 2018, accessed October 10, 2018.

You can find poetry resources for your classroom at the Poetry Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and Split This Rock. The Poetry Foundation’s website also has a helpful Glossary of Poetic Terms that you can reference to incorporate elements of craft into your lessons.

The following learning experiences support students in engaging with former Youth Poet Laureate and inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s 2018 TED Talk, Using Your Voice Is a Political Choice (07:17). Note that the transcript is available in many languages on the TED website.

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  1. After viewing Amanda Gorman’s TED Talk Using Your Voice Is a Political Choice, have students respond to the two questions that she asks at the beginning of her talk in their journals: 
    • Whose shoulders do you stand on?
    • What do you stand for? 
  2. Next, write Gorman’s mantra, which she recites to herself before every performance, on the board: 

    I am the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me. 

    One at a time, have three students read the mantra out loud. Then ask pairs to discuss Gorman’s craft: What structural or stylistic choices has Gorman made in developing her mantra? Students might pick up on the slant rhyme and assonance, powerful poetic devices that Gorman uses to connect chain and change. While naming the literary devices isn’t crucial, thinking about the impact of Gorman’s deliberate choice to use vowel sounds and words that almost but don’t quite rhyme to emphasize her Freedom Fighter ancestors’ transition from chains to change invites close reading and discussion. 

  3. Finally, have students draw ideas from their journals and inspiration from Amanda Gorman to create their own one-sentence mantras. For students who benefit from structure, offer them the following sentence stem: I am the . . . , who is/are . . . Have them share in pairs, small groups, or using the Wraparound strategy, perhaps creating a class lifted line poem in the process. You can add a text-based extension by asking students to write a mantra for a character in their core text and explain their choices in a short presentation or piece of writing. 
  1. Working together as a class, invite students to complete the following sentence starter, recording their ideas on one side of the board: The purpose of poetry is to . . . Then watch Gorman’s TED Talk Using Your Voice Is a Political Choice and have pairs discuss the following question for one minute: How would Amanda Gorman complete the sentence starter, The purpose of poetry is to . . . ? Record their ideas on the other side of the board. 
  2. Use the questions in the second step of the Connect, Extend, Challenge teaching strategy to help students reflect on connections between their ideas about the purpose of poetry and the ones Gorman presents in the video. They can respond to the questions in their journals or on the chart provided on the teaching strategy page. Debrief as a class, recording students’ ideas on the board. 
  3. Replay the video from 02:20 to 04:40. Prompt students to listen for Gorman’s ideas about the purpose of poetry. Divide the class into groups of three, pass out the Exploring the Purpose of Poetry handout, and use the Jigsaw strategy to have students do a close reading of a section of Gorman’s TED Talk. Assign each group one of the three short passages included on the handout to read and discuss in their “expert” groups. Then have them share their ideas and their questions in their “teaching” groups before discussing the final two questions on their handouts.
  4. Finally, write the following passage from Gorman’s TED Talk on the board and have three different volunteers read it out loud: “Because poetry is always at the pulse of the most dangerous and daring questions that a nation and a world might face. What path do we stand on as a people, and what future as a people do we stand for?” Use the Sketch to Stretch teaching strategy to have students reflect with visuals and writing on the meaning and significance of this passage. They can share their sketches in pairs and then discuss the following questions as a whole class:
    • How can poetry help us answer the question of what shoulders we stand on and what we stand for as a nation and as a people? 
    • How can other art forms help us think about and answer these questions? (Consider visual arts, music, video, other forms of writing, etc.)

Familiarize yourself with the Found Poems strategy if you haven’t tried it before with your class. 

  1. Explain to students that they will be creating a poem using words and phrases from the text they are reading to explore a question. Their poems might answer, challenge, or complicate the question. The goals of this experience are close reading, exploration, and creative expression.
  2. Start by posing a question—perhaps the unit’s essential question or another rich open-ended question. Students should choose one or two pages in their text to focus on and reread at least two times. Then they should select 10 to 15 words or short phrases (of no more than three words) from this section of the text that stand out to them to record in their notebooks. They might start by choosing one or two anchor words or phrases and then build out their lists from there.
  3. Next, students should write the question and, below it, create a found poem that uses only the words and phrases they selected. They can arrange them in any order on the page, create line breaks, use creative spacing and word placement, and add punctuation. 
  4. Have students read aloud their poems in pairs, and ask if any volunteers would like to share theirs with the class. You can add a writing extension by asking students to explain their process of choosing their words and phrases, as well as how their poem answers or complicates the question.

Blackout poetry is another kind of found poetry that demands close reading. In a blackout poem, students use a black marker (or other colors) to obscure sections of the original text until a new blacked-out or redacted poem emerges. Creators use all kinds of lines—straight, curvy, zig-zag—to form the edges of their redacted sections, so what emerges is a poem within a piece of art. You can find examples of blackout poetry online to share with your students. For a blackout poem, students need photocopies of the text they will work with so they don’t destroy the original. 

  1. Pass out copies of the section of text (no more than one page total) that students will work with and follow the process for the Found Poems strategy. After reading through the text multiple times, students should start by circling or boxing their anchor words and phrases. Then they can select other words and phrases that will form their poem in response to the question you posed. Finally, have students redact the remaining text, using color and/or design to further emphasize the purpose of their poem if they wish. 
  2. Because blackout poems are so visual, have students share in a gallery walk. On index cards or large sticky notes, they can each create a museum label that includes a title for their poem, a short description, and the materials they used. 

Choose one or more poems for students to experience and discuss. 

  1. If the poem has a video or audio version available, play it two times before distributing the text version, which students can read to themselves and then out loud as a class. If you are only using the text version, you should read it out loud and then ask student volunteers to read it out loud a second time. As students become familiar with the poem’s themes and purpose, consider asking how the poet or reader uses voice, pauses, and pacing to help convey meaning. 
  2. Invite students to make personal connections to the poem by choosing a favorite line for a journal reflection. The following prompt can help get them started:

    The line that stands out to me is _______________ because . . . 
    • . . . of something about who I am. (What in particular?)
    • . . . it reflects human nature or how people are in the world. (What human characteristics or ways of being?)
    • . . . of how the poet expressed the idea. (What does the poet do that makes you feel this way?) 1
  3. Divide the class into small groups to share ideas from their journals and to pose any questions that the poem raises for them. Then come together as a whole class to share lingering questions and interesting ideas that emerged during the group discussions.
  • 1David Perkins, Future Wise (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2014), 126.

After watching and/or reading and discussing one or more poems that explore the complexity of identity, have students craft their own poems. To help them generate ideas for their own identity poem, have them review any identity charts they may have created over the course of the unit, as well as their journal responses. Then choose a teaching strategy like Rapid-Fire Writing to help students generate ideas for their poems. For students who benefit from more structure or who might not feel confident writing poetry yet, Facing History has handouts with sentence starters for “My Honest Poem”and “Two Names, Two Worlds” that can help get them started and boost their confidence. You can create a similar template for your class if you studied a different poem. See the Notes to Teacher section for ideas about workshopping poetry. 

Poetry is also a powerful way for students to lend their voice in support of issues in their school, communities, or world that matter to them and to others around them. After watching/reading one or more poems that explore a personal or social issue, use the Spoken Word Mind Map handout to help students generate ideas about an issue in their school, community, or world that they feel passionate about and would like to call attention to in an original poem. Then have them draft their poems. If they are having trouble getting started, prompt them to do a quick freewrite in their journals that expands on ideas from their mind-mapping handout. You can also create sentence-stem handouts that use the beginnings of lines from the poems you studied to help get students started. See the Notes to Teacher section for ideas about workshopping poetry.

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