Considering that students bring their own histories and cultural identities to their school experiences, it is important that students learn about and see their cultural heritages reflected in the reading and writing they do in their high school courses. For this reason, the poetry lessons are student centered and begin by asking questions that relate the themes in the poems to the lives of the students. Once students have made personal connections with the poems based on their own experiences, they are then ready to make connections with the themes and concepts discussed in the poems. In coupling the students’ perspectives with those of the poets, the educational team believes that the students’ study of the poetry will have deeper meaning for them and will create a more lasting impact in their lives.
If you are new to reading poetry, the following questions will act as a beginner’s guide. As you read each poem, ask yourself, “Who is the speaker in the poem?” “To whom is the poem addressed?” “What tone does the speaker use in the poem?” “What event does this poem describe?” and “What happens in the poem?” Each of these questions will be essential in aiding your understanding of the poems below.
History, Witness, and the Struggle for Freedom
“The Apple Trees in Sussex” by Samuel W. Allen
Samuel W. Allen was known for merging African and African American culture in his poetry. As you read this poem and complete this lesson, think about what you’ve learned about colonialism and the characteristics you assign to the words “civil” and “savage.”
“Nat Turner in the Clearing” by Alvin Aubert
Alvin Aubert was an award-winning poet, playwright, editor, and literary critic who was dedicated to championing African American culture. As you read this poem and complete this lesson, think about the history and consequences of Nat Turner’s Rebellion and why this is an event that we still find relevant today.
Language, Music, and the Vernacular
“Last Affair: Bessie’s Blues Song” by Michael S. Harper
Michael S. Harper was an acclaimed poet, editor, and educator. Bessie Smith, the subject of the poem, was a blues singer from the 1920s. As you read this poem and complete this lesson, think about what music means to you and the influence that it has on your own life.
Seeding the Future of African American Poetry
“Cousins” by Kevin Young
Kevin Young, a former member of the Dark Room Collective, is the current poetry editor of The New Yorker. “Cousins” is a personal poem centered around family and loss. As you read this poem and complete this lesson, think about the role family plays in your life and what it means to you.