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.
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
Social Studies/English Language Arts
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.
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.
Activity II: Small Group Discussion
Objective: Students will communicate their own ideas and perceptions in a small group.
Activity III: Vocabulary
Objective: Students will learn vocabulary from cues in context and from making connections.
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!
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.)
Conduct a whole group discussion on the varying perspectives on the African American experience that your class has encountered through reading these poems.