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Use Poetry To Teach About Identity

Celebrate National Poetry Month with these teaching ideas that use poetry to help students grapple with the complexities of identity and inspire them to tell their own stories.

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts

Grade

6–12
  • Global Migration & Immigration

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

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.

  • 1Eveline Chao, “Life of the Mind: Q&A: Tracy K. Smith,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, September 13, 2017.
  • 1 activity

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Activities

Activities

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.

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Additional Resources

Resources from Other Organizations

We recommend the following resources from other organizations to enrich your exploration of this topic.
Poem-a-Day
Poets.org

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Facing History and Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

The resources I’m getting from my colleagues through Facing History have been just invaluable.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif