Teacher: Diane Shearer
Overview: Whether our students are from Georgia, New York, Nebraska, or another country, if they are sitting in an American classroom, they are part of our larger American community. This activity invites the instructor to share with students some examples of how other Americans have expressed their feelings about America through songs and poetry. Students then write their own poems to express their relationship with America.Click here for extended version of this lesson with student artifact and teacher reflection.
Materials: Songs and poems that express feelings about America; CD or cassette player
Time: Approximately 2 hours
Part 1: "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike . . . weve all come to look for America . . . ."
- Since a study of American literature is a way of looking for America, Paul Simons "America" makes an effective starting point. The song plays as students enter the room. Explain to students that they are about to hear several songs about America. As they listen, they are to do a quickwrite on the topic "America/the American Dream."
- Possible songs:
- "America the Beautiful" as sung by Ray Charles
- "Youre Beautiful to Me," Ted Hawkins
- "Your Country," Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon
- "This Land is Your Land," Woody Guthrie
- After students write for 10-15 minutes, ask for volunteers to share part of what they have written. Usually several will and this in turn leads to much discussion and lively disagreements.
- If no one volunteers, ask everyone to call out one important word from what their quickwrites and compile a list on the board. Begin a discussion from this list. You may also discuss the lyrics of famous patriotic songs and the picture they paint of America.
Part 2: Poems about America.
- As a class, quickly read several poems about America, discussing them briefly and talking about the authors attitudes toward America. Depending on how many poems you read and discuss, this may take an extra hour.
- "I Hear America Singing," Walt Whitman
- "I, Too" Langston Hughes
- "America," Claude McKay
- "Shine, Perishing Republic" Robinson Jeffers
- "Who Runs America? Allen Ginsberg
- "I Am Waiting," Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- "This Land is Your Land," Woody Guthrie (lyrics)
- After this whole class discussion, have each student write a poem that expresses his/her feelings about America.
Evaluation: Students' poems
This assignment changes slightly from year to year in that I vary the songs and poems I choose to use. I have now compiled a tape of songs about America, so I do not use the same ones each year. I try to keep a balance in poems and songs between the patriotic and the critical/cynical. Quite often the poems the students themselves write are cynical or negative, but each fall some reflect the tenor of the times. In 2000 we were writing just before the presidential election. In 2001 we were writing in late September. Poems this year were less cynical and often alluded to the terrorist attacks.
Through the years I have found that this assignment generates many good poems. Some of my students writings from this assignment have won awards and/or been published in our literary magazine. Allowing students time in class to read aloud their poems is always rewarding and helps build a sense of classroom community at the beginning of the school year.
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