Developed in collaboration with poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths and a group of New York City public school teachers, this unit focuses on “The Weakness,” by Toi Derricotte and uses an anthology of poems we’ve compiled on the African American experience.


There is no one poem that represents the experience of African Americans in the United States, just as there is no one poem that represents the experience, stories, or feelings of any other group of people. Yet, the history of racism in this country is seared deeply into the lives of many African Americans. “The Weakness” by Toi Derricotte recounts an experience with racism through the eyes of a young, light-skinned African American girl going shopping with her grandmother in a department store in 1945. The poems in The African American Experience offer a number of perspectives from African American poets that add a rich complexity to your students’ perceptions of African American lives.

To provide diverse learners with multiple entry points to the poem, we start with a role playing activity, so that all students can enter the discussions that follow with something of their own to say. As always, feel free to adapt these activities to the specific needs and learning styles of your students and your curriculum.


Common Core State Standards

Reading Literature:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL, Key Ideas and Details .1, .2, .3

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL, Craft and Structure .4


Speaking and Listening:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL, Comprehension and Collaboration .1

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL, Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas .4


Interdisciplinary Connections:

Social Studies/English Language Arts


Before Reading the Poem

Warm Up: Subtle Gestures that Show Disrespect

Whip Around: Model a gesture with your head that shows, in a subtle way, disrespect for someone. It can be something like turning your head away, smiling weakly, or frowning. After this modeling, ask your students to go quickly around the room using a part of their bodies to show a subtle gesture that shows disrespect.

Activity: Role Play—Reacting to Subtle Disrespect

Objective: Students will hone their speaking and listening skills while sharpening their perceptive abilities in the case of subtle disrespect.

Tell your students that, in preparation for reading the poem “The Weakness” by Toi Derricotte, they are going to develop short skits in which one group of students thinks they have every right to be somewhere and another group thinks they do not. They will present these skits to other class members and write about their performance experience afterward.

  • Divide your class into small groups of four students each. Each group should identify somewhere in their community that is open to the public. Two of the students in each group are going to pretend to go there. The other two students will already be in that place and show their disrespect with a movement of their head (or parts of their head). The ones who are disrespected are to react, without physical contact, according to how they feel.
  • NOTE: It is very important to emphasize that there is to be no physical contact among students. Please be sure to state this ground rule clearly up front.
  • Give them five minutes to prepare and rehearse.
  • Ask one group to perform its short skit.
  • After the performance, the rest of the class claps to show respect.
  • Ask the class to write down: What was the situation? How did the two students show their disrespect? How did the disrespected students feel? What is your evidence? How did they show it?
  • Repeat the process for each of the groups.
  • Ask them to turn and talk with a partner about what they noticed about the non-verbal showing of disrespect and the possible responses to it.


Reading the Poem

Activity I: Reading and Listening in Multiple Ways

Objective: Students will use careful noticing skills to identify important parts of a poem while listening and reading.

  • Hand out copies of “The Weakness” by Toi Derricotte.
  • Ask your students to read the poem once, silently, to themselves.
  • Have the poem read out loud twice, each time by a different student.
  • Ask your students to read the poem silently, again. This time, ask them to write down what “jumps out at them” in the poem, including words they don’t know.


Activity II: Small Group Discussion

Objective: Students will communicate their own ideas and perceptions in a small group.

  • Ask your students to get back in their groups of four.
  • Have them discuss the following questions:
    • What jumped out at you in the poem?
    • What connections do you make to your own experience (the short skits, other things you’ve done, what you’ve read, what you’ve seen) to the poem?
    • What questions do you have?
    • What words need explaining? In your group, try to puzzle out the meanings from context and other clues.


Activity III: Vocabulary

Objective: Students will learn vocabulary from cues in context and from making connections.

  • As a whole class, ask your students for the list of vocabulary words in the poem they do not know. Conduct a discussion of the meaning of these words, based on their prior small group discussions.
  • Here are some words you might want to include in a vocabulary lesson if your students are not forthcoming with words they do not understand.










Activity IV: Whole Group Discussions

Objective: Students will form an interpretation of a poem while citing evidence in support of their interpretations.

There are multiple topics you can include in whole class discussions of “The Weakness.”  Choose the one(s) that fit most closely with your curriculum—or create your own!

  • Ask your students what jumped out at them in the poem. From their answers you can frame a discussion of line breaks, simile, and metaphor.
  • List your students’ questions on the board and conduct a discussion around possible answers.
  • Based on your students’ connections, answers to their questions, and what jumped out at them, what do they think this poem is about? Ask them to cite evidence from the poem to back up their interpretations.


Activity V: Other African American Perspectives

For this activity your students will need to access the anthology The African American Experience on their laptops or tablets.

Divide your students into their groups of four people each. Assign each group one to three poems to read from the anthology. (Each group should have different poems.)

  • Ask your students to silently read the poems that have been assigned to them as a group. 
  • After they have read the poems twice silently, ask them to read the poems out loud to each other.
  • Then have them write down what jumps out in the poem, the connections they make, and the questions they have. (They should be familiar with this process because it mimics what they did when they read “The Weakness.”)
  • Still in their small groups, they should have a discussion about their interpretations of the poems, offering evidence to each other for their thoughts.
  • Ask them to choose one of the poems (if you have given them more than one) that they think offers an important perspective on the African American experience to present to the whole class.
  • Each small group should pick one of their members to read the poem to the class, and one member to explain the group’s interpretation of the poem and the evidence for it.

Conduct a whole group discussion on the varying perspectives on the African American experience that your class has encountered through reading these poems.