POETRY AND CULTURE
Poetry is part of America's rich cultural inheritance the poetic tradition in this country, like the people of this country, is rooted in many other cultures around the world. Several teachers at the first Favorite Poem Project Summer Institute suggested working poetry into middle school cultural curriculum, especially into lessons having to do with examining cultural background or those looking at the process of immigration and how it has contributed to this country.
Ask students to interview parents, grandparents or other relatives to learn about their family backgrounds, looking into at least one parent's or relative's family history. The goal should be to tell a family story some piece of personal history that corresponds with United States and world history. Does someone in the family know when an ancestor first came to this country? Are there any students who have recently emigrated from another country or who remember doing so as younger children? If students do not know the story of their family's immigration, they should try to discover the earliest record of their family's being in this country. What did their ancestors do? Where did they live? What language did they speak? Did they share poems or songs in this language with the family on holidays or other special occasions? They may wish to focus on just one or two people in their family history, so that the emphasis is on sharing a rich, vivid story rather than on developing an elaborate, complicated family tree. Showing some of the Favorite Poem videos, or reading letters and poems from Americans' Favorite Poems (suggestions below) may guide students or pique their interest.
Of course, many students will discover that their immediate family descends from people of several countries and cultures. Let students know that they may discover several places where different ancestors have come from and can share the part of their family story that is of greatest interest to them, or that they can learn the most about. Students may also gather photographs, recipes, objects or artwork from their relatives that represent some part of their family background. If students are unable to do research with family members, guide them in finding and researching the story of another family either through talking to people or seeking a story in books. (For example, Silver Days by Sonia Levitin tells the story of the Pratt family's escape from Nazi Germany to the United States. Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse shows the power of poetry in the life of a twelve-year old girl and her family as they flee from Russia to the United States in 1919.)
During this time of exploring, the teacher can introduce the students to poems that cross cultures and to the notion of translation. The lesson may conclude with oral presentations of family stories and/or with creative projects creating cultural collages, writing poems. As part of an oral presentation or what they will turn in, students should include a poem, perhaps one written in the language of their ancestors, or any poem that somehow reflects their or their families' experience. If a student chooses a poem written in another language, perhaps he or she (or a parent) will be able to read it aloud to the class in that language. If there is an English translation, they should include or read it as well. If not, perhaps the student or someone they know can try to translate the poem into English. If a student is not able to read a poem or its translation aloud, they can show the other students what it looks like on the page. Sharing poems and family stories is a personal place for students to begin addressing broader questions of culture, and may lead well into other cultural lessons.
Suggested Favorite Poem Project Videos:
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?" by Emily Dickinson
"Minstrel Man" by Langston Hughes
Tanka by Sone No Yoshitada
"Politics" by William Butler Yeats
"Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra" by Julia de Burgos
From "Gitanjali" by Rabindranath Tagore
"On a Quiet Night" by Li Po
"Piececitos" by Gabriela Mistral
"A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The Way of the Water-Hyacinth" by Zaw Gee
Poems with letters that make family history or cultural connections in Americans' Favorite Poems:
"Refugee Blues" by W.H. Auden
Cultural Curriculum Resources Suggested by Several Teachers:
Oral History Resources (Book Links, March 1998)
- Leon's Story by Leon Tillage
Ancestors (10-part PBS series) Companion Internet site: www.kbyu.orglancestors
Heritage and Immigration: A Beginning Bibliography
Aldan, Daisy. Poems from India (sel.). NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969.
Based on lessons by Mary Bourque, Rita Delaney (Clark Avenue School, Chelsea, MA) Theresa Creaney (Smith School, Danvers, MA), Morgan May (Graduate Student, Boston University School of Education) Jennifer McConathy (Ben-Hem School, Natick, MA), and Margaret Voss (Marblehead Public Schools).