Laurisa Miller

English 112B / Warner

Wednesdays @ 4:00






Moving through Works by Artists other than just the Expected Greats



            A high school student walks into class on a Monday morning and his or her instructor informs the class that for the next couple of weeks, they will be studying poetry with works by Emily Dickinson, Percy Bysshe Shelly, William Shakespeare, and the like. Automatically, the students in the English classroom are intimidated; the teacher walks through the rows of chairs, dispensing dense packets of poetic literature containing intimidating stanzas and heroic couplets. One student peers at the first page and raises her hand in puzzling frustration, “This isn’t even in English.”

            “Oh, I peg your pardon, but it is, Miss Smith. What you are looking at is Middle English, and this writing preceded those who are the great poets of today.” The students look at each other with boredom and disgust, and blankets of indifference soon roll over their countenances. Though there was the opportunity to share a great style of English literature with the students, the teacher has lost them before the potentially intriguing lesson even started.


            The above illustration is arguably an experience that many high school students have when encountering poetry; my experience was much similar to this one and because of it, I learned to fear and loathe poetry altogether. Many English teachers approach poetry in an old-fashioned manner that sends their students running into the halls screaming with their hands covering their ears. The manner in which poetry is taught and the content that is covered has the potential to enlighten learners or turn them off from the type of literary work completely.

Who is to say that Dickinson and Shakespeare and the rest of those who are considered to be “the greats” by most faculties are the only ones who have written good poetry? Does a poet have to be buried six feet under in order for their works to be noteworthy? This curriculum stands to teach students about poetry, poets and their respective works, by authors whose writings are relevant to the experiences shared by students of this age group. Sentiments of uncertainty, love, and new beginnings are expressed by numerous artists of the contemporary and modern American genres that are just as powerful as works by those who fall into the classical timeline; this is by no means to say that artists like Longfellow do not have the ability to reach the young generations of today. It merely means that there are poets that can have a particular impact on this age group that are worth examining instead of dismissing. Artists such as Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, and even Tupac Shakur will be used in this curriculum to confirm a sense of connection between their works and the young adult audience in the hope of showing that this alternative approach to teaching poetry can be successful and just as meaningful as reciting Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare.

Use Maya Angelou’s I Know why the Caged Bird Sings as a central focus for the unit plan; though it is a novel, the autobiography tells how Angelou’s poetry incorporates her life experiences. Marguerite Johnson is a victim of her color and her sex. 1930s America teaches her that black is ugly; that the sexual abuse she suffers is her fault. She and her beloved brother Bailey are parcelled between their loving and god-fearing grandmother in the remote southern town of Stamps, and California where her glamorous mother lives. It is only in her teens that Marguerite emerges from the private world of muteness into which she has withdrawn and confronts the prejudice around her. She is no longer a victim but a champion of her own identity. Maya Angelou's classic autobiographical account of her childhood and early youth is a powerful and moving evocation of a black girl's struggle against her oppressors (Fischer, 2004).


Before reading and discussing I Know why the Caged Bird Sings, do an exercise that will help them warm up to the notion of working with poetry, an introduction to the power poetry can have per say. Here are two very powerful poems by two arguably extremely different authors. Make the reading of these two poems an activity for your students. Divide the classroom in half and have one side read Hughes, and the other read Frost; consider repeating the reading aloud exercise twice as students may think about things differently after hearing a second time.

“Theme for English B”

Langston Hughes

The instructor said,

            Go home and write

            a page tonight.

            And let that page come out of


            Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?

I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.

I went to school there, then Durham, then here

to this college on the hill above Harlem.

I am the only colored student in my class.

The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem

through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,

Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,

the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator

up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me

at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what

I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:

hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.

(I hear New York too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.

I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.

I like a pipe for a Christmas present,

or records—Bessie, pop, or Bach.

I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like

The same things other folks like who are other races.

So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.

But it will be

a part of you, instructor.

You are white—

yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

That’s American.

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.

Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me—

although you’re older—and white

and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.



“The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost


TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


1. Some questions to pose to the class might


A. Are there any style differences in the two poems? Let the students notice everything that is different about the ways in which the poems are written. This question allows the instructor to touch on the different poetic forms that authors use.

B. Compare and contrast “Theme for English B” and “The Road Not Taken;” have the students discuss the similarities and differences of subject matter within the two poems. Do they have a common message? What do the students believe the poems to mean? It is imperative that the instructor not tell the students exactly what the poets are saying, as poetry is interpretive as well as relative; just discreetly steer them in the correct direction, or simply let their interpretations stand.

2. Give your students a journal writing assignment in which they will respond to one of the two poems. Ask them how they are able to relate to what the poet is talking about; if there are students who believe they cannot relate to either poem in the slightest way, have them right why. Why do they not relate to Hughes or Frost? How could the poems be different in order for you to relate to their content?

The poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes are good starters for the reading of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because Frost explores the idea of going a route that most are scared to travel down, which relates to the main character coming out of her muteness to confront her oppression; Hughes discusses the issue of being black in a white majority and students will be able to relate this to the feelings of the young girl in the novel as well. Here are some possible questions for discussing Angelou’s novel:


1.     The memoir opens with a provocative refrain: "What you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay ... "

What do you think this passage says about Ritie's sense of herself? How does she feel about her place in the world? How does she keep her identity intact?


2.     Upon seeing her mother for the first time after years of separation, Ritie describes her as "a hurricane in its perfect power." What do you think about Ritie's relationship with her mother? How does it compare to her relationship with her grandmother, "Momma"?


3.     The author writes, "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." What do you make of the author's portrayal of race? How do Ritie and her family cope with the racial tension that permeates their lives?


4.     Throughout the book, Ritie struggles with feelings that she is "bad" and "sinful," as her thoughts echo the admonitions of her strict religious upbringing. What does she learn at the end of the memoir about right and wrong?


5.     What is the significance of the title as it relates to Ritie's self-imposed muteness?

Instructors also have the option of giving their students writing assignments along with the above discussion questions. Here are possible writing topics to consider:

1.     Write a poem based on an experience described in “Caged Bird” or on one of the themes of the autobiography. Your analysis/explanation of the poem (e.g. its theme, tone, structure, imagery and diction) will be especially important.

2.     The following is Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem entitled, “Sympathy.” Have the students compare and contrast the poem with the novel by Angelou; what is the significance of the poem when applied to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!


I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,--
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!


Along with discussing the novel and having the students write on several different topics, instructors can also play Alicia Key’s song “Caged Bird,” which directly relates to Angelou; instructors have the option to show the television movie of the novel to their class as well. However, before doing so, please consider the content of the movie and what is deemed acceptable material by the rules of a given school district.


Now that the students have been exposed to the central focus of the poetry unit, as well as a few introductory poems and ideas, it is beneficial to explore other poems and poets to give the unit a feeling of completion. Consider Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” as another poem that the class can focus on. Lines such as “rage, rage against the dying of the light” relate to the idea of standing up for one’s self, countering oppression, which we see in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. With this particular poem, the instructor has the ability to play specific scenes from the movie Dangerous Minds in which students are shown working through this exact poem. In dealing with the idea of courage and fighting oppression, Sterling A. Brown’s “Strong Men” is another work that the class can focus on. Written in a time of blatant racism towards African Americans, the poem deals with men choosing to, and fighting to, remain strong-hearted even when times are at their worst. These two pieces of work not only relate to the central focus in a unique way, but also relate to the age group in particular, given that young adults struggle with their identities constantly.

            A fun way for the students to learn poetry and be able to enjoy it at the same time would be to have them read work by someone not too distant from their generation and culture. For example, Tupac Shakur, a notorious rapper, wrote The Rose that Grew From Concrete just before his passing and some of his works are ones that the young adult audience can relate to. Poems like “If I Fail” and “In the Depths of Solitude” explore the issues of making mistakes, loneliness, and heartache, which are experiences that young people are just beginning to go through. In would be an interesting assignment for students to compare Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” with Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete;” lines such as “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack/in the concrete/Proving nature’s law wrong it learned 2 walk” would make for good journal writing activities.

            Along with studying works by various poets, students can also create a portfolio of their own work. One of the best ways to learn to appreciate something is to experience it for one’s self; the instructor can assign limericks, haikus, sonnets, or even free verse poems for their students to create.





























Lastly, and as a means of bringing the extended unit back to the work of focus, Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise” is a great poem for the class to study. Connie Burns has created an excellent lesson plan in regards to paralleling “And Still I Rise” with lyrics in hip hop recordings by female artists such as Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill. Her lesson plan is a unique way for students to “be exposed to important American poetry by a significant African American female writer, discover positive meaning in popular music and poetry,” as well as “deepen [students] understanding of issues of racism, stereotyping, discrimination, and gender bias” (Burns, Lesson 53). With this lesson plan, students are given the opportunity to connect substantial poetry with the music that they already enjoy.


CrashBoomLove by Juan Felipe Herrerra. The story is told through the voice of a pained 16-year-old high school student whose father leaves the family.

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech. Twelve-year-old Annie is a runner and the free-verse poems in Creech’s book match the rhythm of her pounding feet as well as the feelings she has about her mother’s pregnancy and her grandfather’s oncoming dementia.

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson uses a teen voice to create the free verse, the sonnets, and the haiku that tell Lonnie’s story as he moves through group and teen homes.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, followed by True Believer, are highly acclaimed stories of a determined young girl who answers a babysitting ad and finds that the mother is just about her own age. In the second book, LaVaughn’s horizons extend beyond her neighborhood, but she does not lose her determination. The free verse format adds dignity to what could be just two more problem novels.

17: A Novel in Prose Poems by Liz Rosenberg. Stephanie’s love story, from beginning to end—and beyond—is told through this collection of rich images.

Stepping Out with Grandma Mac by Nikki Grimes. Twenty poems capture and celebrate the experiences shared by a teenage girl and her grandmother.

Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes. This unusual biography is presented through 21 poetic speeches given at a funeral parlor where people have come to mourn the death, at age 34, of the first African American woman to become a licensed pilot.


            As the unit comes to a close, student should have new ideas and insights toward the works that they have read as well as toward poetry as a whole. Should the instructor decide to have his or her students writing their own poetry throughout the unit, the end of the unit plan is the perfect opportunity for the students to partake in a project to display their own works. Along with sharing what they have created, students can also express their feelings toward poetry in general in a writing assignment. Students can write and essay, or even a poem, on how the unit changed their perspectives on poetry. Did they learn to appreciate it? What has poetry taught them that other types of literary works did not? If they feel that the poets that were discussed were irrelevant and unmoving, what other poets would they like to explore? This assignment helps the student tie in the importance, or unimportance, of poetry to the literary world as well as being an opportunity for evaluation and possible correction of the unit plan for future classrooms.







Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House. 1970.

- - -. “And Still I Rise.” New York: Random House. 1978.

Author Unknown. “Maya Angelou: Reader’s Group Companion.” Book Group Corner.

Books @ Random. Random House, Inc. 2004.

Baldwin, James. “The Giver (for Berdis).” Jimmy’s Blues. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek.


Brown, Sterling Allen. “Strong Men.” The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New

York: Harper & Row. 1980.

Burns, Connie. Lesson 53: “And Still I Rise” Proud Black Women: Understanding the poetry

of Maya Angelou through the lyrics of two female rappers. Lesson Plans for Teachers.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. November, 2004.

Creech, Sharon. Heartbeat. New York: HarperCollins. 2004.

Dir. Cook, Fielder. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Prod. Edwards, Jean Moore.

Tomorrow Entertainment, Inc. 1986.

Donelson, Kenneth L. and Nilsen, Alleen Pace. Literature for Today’s Young Adults.

Boston: Allyn and Bacon Pearson Education, Inc. 2001.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” Collected Poems of Robert Frost. New York: H. Holt.



Grimes, Nikki. Stepping Out with Grandma Mac. Angelo, illustrator. Scholastic/Orchard,


- - -. Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman. Lewis, E. B., illustrator.

Scholastic. 2002.

Herrerra, Juan Felipe. CrashBoomLove. University of New Mexico. 1999.

Hill, Lauryn. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Sony.


Keys, Alicia. “Caged Bird.” Songs in A Minor. Jive. 2001.

Latifah, Queen. “Come into My House.” All Hail the Queen. Tommy Boy Music. 1989.

Meehan, Frankie. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: Written Productions.” Frankie’s

ESOL Worksheets. 2004.

Rosenberg, Liz. 17: A Novel in Prose Poems. Cricket. 2002.

Dir. Smith, John N. Dangerous Minds. Prod. Don Simpson & Jerry Bruckheimer. Burbank:

Buena Vista Home Video. 1995.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” The Academy of American Poets.


Wolff, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade. Holt. 1993

- - -. True Believer. S & S/ Atheneum. 2001.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. Putnam’s. 2003.