“Human Family:” Using Poetry to Make Sense of Our World


By Connie Colvin

Today is September 11th and I’m thinking about Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem “Human Family.” I had heard this poem several times before, even in an iPhone commercial, but it came to me in a transformative way last October in a group e-mail from Andy Patrick, a former colleague and WVCTE member. Andy challenged us to use the poem in our classrooms to help students (and ourselves) through a very divisive time in our country. My first thought was: I don’t have time. My second thought was: I need to make time. What came out of that second thought was an experience I would say was one of my favorites in teaching so far.

Between short stories, novel studies, non-fiction articles, writing units, Shakespeare, and everything in between, I realized that (unless you count The Odyssey) I use very little poetry in my 9th and 10th grade classes. I was easily able to bring a close reading of “Human Family” into my 9th grade study of To Kill a Mockingbird as we were just beginning to feel racial tension in Maycomb, but how to bring it to my 10th grade Honors students in a meaningful way? Last year was a special year in that I had my own son in one of my 10th grade classes. With the next two years filled with AP curriculum that might not feature any poetry at all, I started to think maybe I needed to share more than just one important poem with them. But then the weight of responsibility set in: which ones? Which poems would I want my own son to leave high school with? As the 2nd 9 weeks approached, I decided to create a Poem of the Week each week of the term.

Poem of the Week was a short activity we turned to each Friday after independent reading time. We read the poem together, then I gave students a few minutes to work on the first couple of questions on the page – literal thinking such as rhyme scheme and literary devices – then we moved on to the day’s lesson. Over the weekend, they looked more closely at the poem to finish the last few questions – making connections and opinions on the text – in preparation for a discussion on Monday. I tried to connect each week’s poem with what was going on in class or in the world. As we began our first novel study, Of Mice and Men, we looked at dreams deferred in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” I turned to Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” at Halloween. By the beginning of November, with political and racial tension in our country at an unbelievable high and students getting to know Crooks in our novel, I shared “Human Family.” That week, instead of me reading the poem, I had the students hear Angelou herself read it in this lovely video.

Her voice and the accompanying images had a powerful effect on my students as they listened, so I decided to search for more audiovisuals each week. The Friday after Election Day, we looked at Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” written in Whitman’s own handwriting. After that, I felt we could all use a lighter mood, so we watched the Muppet’s perform Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical “Jabberwocky.” With my son and his classmates beginning to turn 16, I chose to share Rudyard Kipling’s advice in “If,” delivered beautifully by Kevin Spacey in a tribute to Big Papi on his retirement from baseball. As December rolled in, I selected a personal favorite, “Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening” by Robert Frost, with a slideshow of images I took hiking in winter in a nearby wildlife refuge.

Our last Poem of the Week came just before semester exams and I decided to give them a turn. I took two days of class time to help them produce a poem they could submit as their final Poem of the Week. On the first day, I gave a mini-lesson on the haiku master Issa, sharing a children’s book of his work called “Today and Today.” Students were then challenged to create 5 haiku of their own. On the second day, inspired by free resources from Laura Randazzo’s wonderful blog, I set up poetry stations around the room where students were led through steps to create paint chip, roll-the-dice, and blackout poetry. On Friday, I asked them to choose their favorite, clean it up, and hand it in on the final Poem of the Week handout. As these started going up on my bulletin board during exam week, my 10th graders begged me to bring out the station materials so they could write more when they finished their work, and my 9th graders got excited about trying it themselves.

As an English teacher, I don’t consider myself a “poetry person,” but finding ways to bring poetry into my classroom – finding ways to use that poetry to connect and make deeper meaning out of not just what we’re studying but what’s going on in the world around us – made me realize I need to take the class time to be a “poetry person.” The thoughts about writing, life, our culture, the past and their future that my students came up with in comments and discussion (and the poetry they came up with themselves) were well worth every minute.

Today we are all thinking about our human family. After the violence in Charlottesville last month, ongoing debate about immigration, and growing fear about “other,” thinking about ways we are alike is more important than ever. Finding time for poetry in the classroom is a wonderful way to do that.

WVCTE is wondering how you find time for poetry in your classroom. Leave us a comment, tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

After being a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, Connie Colvin finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a high school English teacher in 2015 at the age of 40. She is beginning her third full year of teaching 9th and 10th grade English at Parkersburg High School. When she’s not teaching, Connie can be found long distance walking (while listening to an audiobook!) or knitting, crocheting, or sewing. She is hoping to gather a Wood County group of WVCTE’ers this fall.

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