National Endowment for the Humanities logo This lesson plan is part of the series "Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community," a project developed by the Academy of American Poets in partnership with EDSITEment, the educational website of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), during the NEH’s 50th anniversary year-long celebration.

Funded by the NEH, “Incredible Bridges” responds to the NEH's initiative The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, which seeks to demonstrate and enhance the role of the humanities in public life.


Even though African Americans gained a number of constitutional rights after the passage of the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments following the American Civil War (1861­–1865), they still were not treated equally in Southern states, and even  nationally. Almost one hundred years later during the post–World War II period, continued racial oppression, sanctioned by the segregation laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North, gave rise to the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to remedy inequality by prohibiting discrimination in schools, public facilities, and employment. Revisions to that act legally prohibited discrimination in other areas, such as housing and the work place.  Despite these legal measures, racism and discrimination still persist in this country. Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press) recounts a number of situations in which racism, either blatant or subtle, is evident today. “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” is one such poem. 

The activities that follow allow your students to enter the poem with a visceral understanding of the situation, help them understand the poem and its structure, and lead them into reasoned discussion about ways to make all members of the American community equal, not only in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of one another.

These activities are also designed to level the playing field among diverse learners by including multiple ways to enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. Feel free to adjust them to meet the particular learning styles and needs of your students.


Common Core State Standards

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Students will identify the role of gesture in conveying an idea or emotion.

Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing a poet read her poem on video.

Students will create a shared meaning of the poem by synthesizing what they have noticed.

Students will explore poetry to arrive at a visceral understanding of American equality—how members of the community are treated not only in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of one another.

Curriculum Connections

English, Social Studies


Claudia Rankine Reads “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]”
Before Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem

Note: The following activities invite your students to use gestures, which may make some of them uncomfortable. Encourage these students, in a way that acknowledges their discomfort, to participate. You might tell them they will learn something important from their participation and that no touching or inappropriate gestures will be allowed. 

Activity 1: Using Gesture to Convey Emotion

Objective: Students will identify the role of gesture in conveying an idea or emotion.

Warm Up: Go quickly around the room and ask each of your students to make a gesture that indicates an emotion. Remind your students that no touching of other students or inappropriate gesture will be tolerated.

Explain to your class that you will be studying a poem that deals with an incident on a train and that they will be asked to act out this incident as a way of understanding the poem better.

Activity 2: Planning and Rehearsing a Short Skit

Objective: Students will collaborate in small groups to make decisions about their performances.

  • Ask your students to get into small groups of no more than five people each. Tell them they will act out the following scenario:

    The scene is a crowded train. One woman is the only person standing when another woman enters the car. The second woman  notices that the first one is standing even though there is an empty seat next to a man. The first woman says she is afraid to sit down next to that person, because she is afraid of “people like him.” The second woman is from the same group as the man. How does the second woman feel? What does she do? How does the man feel? What does he do?
  • Give your students no more than fifteen minutes to plan and rehearse their skit. The skit should be no more than five minutes long. Remind them that they are acting, that this is not about them personally.  If you feel it necessary, repeat that no touching of another student or use of inappropriate gestures is allowed during the skit.

Activity 3: Performing Skits

Objective: Students will learn presentation skills.

  • Ask each group of students to perform their skit for the other students in the class. The observing students should write down what they noticed in the skit about how the actors presented their emotions. If a student says, “he was sad,” ask them to describe the action or gesture the student made that they think exhibited sadness.

Activity 4: Whole-Class Discussion

Objective: Students will begin to understand the concept of empathy.

  • Ask your students what they noticed in the skits. What were the gestures? What were the emotions portrayed? How did it feel to be the first woman? How did it feel to be the second woman? How did it feel to be the seated man? What, if anything, surprised them about the way they felt? Would they feel differently if it were a man standing, a woman sitting, and a second man entering the train? In what way?


Viewing the Video and Reading the Poem

Activity 1: Reading the Poem

Objective: Students will complete a close reading of “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” by Claudia Rankine, paying attention to its poetic structure.

  • Project “from Citizen, VI [On the train a woman standing]” from
  • Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down phrases, images, and words that jump out at them. This includes words and phrases they might not know. Prompt your students to notice how Claudia Rankine structures her lines. How many lines are there in a stanza? How does this kind of structure affect the way they read the poem?
  • Ask thirteen of your students to each read a stanza of the poem until it is finished. Ask another thirteen students to repeat the same process. The listening students should add what they hear from the oral readings to their list of what they noticed when they silently read the poem. What happens when they hear each stanza in a different voice?

Activity 2: Watching Claudia Rankine Read “from Citizen ,VI [On the train a woman standing]”

Objective: Students will notice the difference between experiencing a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading her poem.

  • Tell your students that they will be watching a video of Claudia Rankine reading her poem. Ask them to record on paper what they notice in the poem that seems new and different while watching the video. What do they notice about the way Claudia Rankine reads the poem? How does she use her voice and facial gestures?
  • Show the video of Claudia Rankine reading her poem.

Activity 3: Small Group Share

Objective: Students will work collaboratively.

  • Ask your students to get back in their small groups to share what they have noticed. The group members should synthesize their findings into one list and choose another person from the group who later will share this list with the whole class.




Have your students keep a running list on the front board of the words they have read and heard that they do not understand. You can either conduct a separate vocabulary lesson about these words during which students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.


After Viewing and Reading

Activity 1: Gleaning Meaning from Poetic Structure and Content

Objective: Students will create a shared meaning of the poem by synthesizing what they have noticed.

Hold a three-part whole-class discussion.

a. Start by having the representatives from each small group (Section II, Activity 3) share their group lists by writing the lists on the front board.  Look at all the lists and circle the details that seem to come up most often. Use the circled details as a way to help your students arrive at a shared meaning for the poem by asking them what these details might mean. In this way, the details they notice become evidence they can use to support their interpretation of the poem.

b. In what way do the short stanzas and long lines inform the meaning of the poem? How does this structure make you think about the words?

c. Ask your students how the skits they created before the poem relate to the poem itself. How do the feelings they identified in their skits relate to Claudia Rankine’s poem? What words and phrases does Claudia Rankine use to elicit those emotions in her readers? How does she use her voice and facial gestures to reinforce her words?

d. Based on a-c above, what do they think this poem is about? What is their detailed evidence from the poem?



Ask your students to write their own poems based on a scenario that illustrates an example of racism. Ask them to use detailed language to assure that people can see the situation “in their mind’s eye.” The example can be from an episode they experienced, or one they imagined.

Ask your students to help you develop an evaluation tool for their work using the terms exemplary, proficient, developing, and basic. What, for example, do they (and you) think are the characteristics of an exemplary poem that uses detailed language? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? You may also want to prompt them to evaluate the appropriateness of their choice of scenario and their use of stanzas.


Creating Deeper Meaning

Based on the experience your students have had with reading “from Citizen ,VI [On the train a woman standing],” conduct one or more of the following activities with your students. Of course, feel free to create your own activities as well.

1. Ask your students share their poems in their small groups. After their sharing, have each group come up with a constructive activity they might do to turn a racist situation into something more positive.

Ask your students to modify their poems, adding the constructive action. Collect the poems into an anthology.

2. Have your students watch and listen to the Freedom Singers1 perform “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” at the White House.

Ask them to use the noticing skills they employed earlier to write down what seems most important to them in the video. What evidence do they have to support that it is important? What is the background for the song? Why is the song important?

How would they characterize the way the Freedom Singers sing? How does it make them feel? How does the audience react? What is their evidence?

[1] The Freedom Singers were a musical group primarily active between 1962 and 1966, singing “freedom songs” in order to fundraise and organize on behalf of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, an organization in the Civil Rights Movement.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.