This unit, which focuses on the poem "The Buttonhook" by Mary Jo Salter, was developed by the Academy of American Poets in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education and a small group of elementary school teachers who are creating social studies curricula aligned with the Common Core State Standards. These school teachers, our Poetry Leaders, teach in schools across the boroughs of New York City. They are Vanessa Rose Scionti, who teaches at Public School 217, Lindsey Dreyfus of P.S. 6, Jessica Egan of P.S. 195, Alexis Dixon of P.S. 414K, Annie Gallagher of P.S. 164K, Angelee Alarnick of P.S. 748, Alana Aaron of P.S. 48M, Allyce Ficigna of P.S. 163M, and Lindsay Williamson of P.S. 503.

Common Core State Standards Addressed

ELA Reading Standards, Literature (grade 4)
Key Ideas and Details: 1
Craft and Structure: 4 and 5
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7

ELA Writing Standards (grade 4)
Text Types and Purposes: 3d

Interdisciplinary Connections
Social Studies, English/ Language Arts

Before Reading the Poem

Before you start these activities ask your students to bring in an artifact from home that represents their heritage. You, the teacher, may want to bring in an artifact from your heritage, as well.
Activity I: Sharing Student Artifacts
Objective: To experience how objects with a personal connection can inspire further questions and learning.

When the students have brought their artifacts to class:

  • Assign your students to groups no larger than four to five people.
  • Tell them that they will be looking closely at each other’s artifacts in these groups.
  • Ground rules for sharing artifacts: 
  1. One person holds up her artifact or passes it around so that people in the small group can look at it carefully.
  2. The person whose artifact it is asks her peers what they noticed about the object and records what people say.
  3. That same person repeats the process two more times, the first time asking for connections group members have to the object; the second time asking if they have any questions about the object.
  4. Each person in the group goes through the same process with other group members. Each member should remember to record what their group says. They might need this information later on in the unit.
  5. When everyone has had a chance, each person may briefly share with members of the group something about their artifact.
  6. Remind them to share their notes to use in a later activity.

Activity II: Photograph that inspired “The Buttonhook
Objective: To use close observation of a photo to inspire language, questions and connections that will help students engage with the poem.

  • Mary Jo Salter used the photograph "Ellis Island, NY, Line Inspection of Arriving Aliens, 1923" from the holdings of the National Archives to inspire her poem "The Buttonhook." Show your class "Ellis Island, NY, Line Inspection of Arriving Aliens, 1923
  • Ask your students to write down what they notice in the photograph. Remind them to try to write what they actually see, not their interpretations of what they see.
  • Then ask them to turn and talk with a partner about what they noticed, any connections they made to themselves, to others, or to other texts.
  • Ask them for questions they might have about the photograph. Write these questions on the board or a flip chart to revisit after reading Mary Jo Salter’s poem.>

Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem


  • To capture affect and information from an oral reading of a poem.
  • To show the relationship between an oral reading and the printed text of a poem.
  • To develop questions and connections to the immigrant experience at Ellis Island and elsewhere.


  • Watch the video of Mary Jo Salter reading her poem twice (go to "The Buttonhook" and click the video icon to view the video).
  • The first time, simply experience the reading. The second time, ask your students to write down what they noticed, the connections they make, and the questions they might have.
  • Either hand out and/or project the poem's text on a large screen. Ask your students to read it silently to themselves. Have them write down what they notice about the lines and the spacing of the words on the page, as well as the words and phrases that jump out to them.
  • Hold a whole class discussion based on what your students noticed in both the video and text versions and the connections they made. Also ask them for questions they still have. Some prompts to try: What are the feelings in the poem? How did Mary Jo Salter get us to feel that way? What techniques did she use? How are the video and text versions similar or different?

After Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem

Objective: To write a paragraph or poem about an object from your heritage that has special meaning for you using precise descriptive language.

Ask each person to write a brief paragraph (or short poem) about their object, using descriptive words they either knew or learned from their small group, connections they have to the object, and what it means to them.  They should convey the feelings they have about the object through their descriptive writing. If they are writing a poem, they should think about how they want the words to look on the page. How will the lines look? What will be the spacing of the words?

Depending on time constraints, either do a whole group share, or ask for volunteers to read what they wrote. After peer and teacher editing, publish your students writing!

You may also want your students to conduct research on the questions they asked in the second activity in this unit. This is a further way to integrate the study of the poem into your ongoing curriculum.


Below is a list of some of the words your students might not know.  Another way to do vocabulary is to have them generate a list from their own listening and reading.

Ellis Island’