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.
Immigration, both legal and illegal, is one of the most debated topics in the United States (and around the world) today. In his poem “Every Day We Get More Illegal” Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States, gives voice to the feelings of those “in-between the light,” who have ambiguous immigration status and work in the United States. The following lesson plan, aimed at facilitating a structured discourse around the issues raised in Herrera’s poem, shows how the humanities provide a lens through which we can explore issues central to maintaining a civil society.
The following sequence of activities is 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.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Students will analyze a visual image.
Students will interpret a poem based on concrete images in its language and structure.
Students will explore poetry as lens through which we can maintain a civil society.
English, Social Studies
Activity 1: Experiencing a Visual Image
Objective: Students will hone their skills for noticing details.
Desert Survival by Sandy Horvath-Dori. Photo Credit: Public Domain.
- Show your students the photograph Desert Survival by Sandy Horvath-Dori,but do not share its title as it might influence their perceptions. Ask them to write down what they see in the photograph. Make sure they record the details first before interpreting those details. For example, instead of, “I see a dandelion growing out of a crack in a rock,” something like, “ I see some red with a line running through it and something green and yellow.” Then they can go into interpretation—“The red might be a rock, or maybe dry earth with a crack, the green and yellow object looks like a flower.” Make sure to remind them to give the details first, then to offer their interpretations.
- When they are finished writing, ask your students to turn and talk with a partner about what they see in the photograph to get at as much detail as possible.
Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion
Objective: Students will interpret Desert Survival using evidence from the photograph.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion around the questions:
- What do you think the photograph is telling us about the flower? How do you know? What is the evidence in the photograph for your interpretation? How does the photograph make you feel? Why?
Activity I: Reading the Poem
Objective: Students will do a close reading of the poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal” by Juan Felipe Herrera, paying particular attention to the placement of words on the page.
- Project “Every Day We Get More Illegal” from Poets.org.
- Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down the words, images, and phrases that jump out at them. This includes words and phrases they do not know. What do they notice about the way the words are placed on the page and the punctuation? Ask them to remember to write down those words that are placed in positions that seem unexpected, and write a note to themselves about the punctuation.
- Ask two students to read the poem, one after the other, out loud to the class. Tell them that the way the words are placed on the page should influence how they pause when they are reading the poem out loud. This may be difficult for some students, but they should try. The listening students should write down what they hear when the poem is read that adds to what they noticed when they read it.
Activity 2: Watching Juan Felipe Herrera Read “Every Day We Get More Illegal”
Objective: Students will notice the difference between reading a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading his poem.
- Tell your students that when they watch the video, they will record what they notice about the way Juan Felipe Herrera reads the poem. What do they notice in the poem that is new and different after watching the video? What more have they learned? Make sure they record this with their other notes.
- Show the video of Juan Felipe Herrera reading his poem.
Activity 3: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will synthesize what they have noticed from reading the poem and watching the video.
- Ask your students to get into small groups to share what they have noticed. They should compile a group account of what they think are the most important things they have recorded from the written poem and the video.
- Do their earlier observations of the photograph relate to what jumped out at them in the poem? If so, how?
Ask your students to 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 in which students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.
Activity 1: Gleaning Meaning from Poetic Structure and Content
Objective: Students will use their synthesis of details from the poem to create shared meaning based on evidence.
- Start this activity with your students by saying that you are going to honor interpretations of the poem that are based on specific examples of images in the poem and its structure. Remind them that this is not a discussion about their opinions on immigration. It is a discussion of the poem.
- Hold a whole-class discussion, starting with what your students have noticed in the poem and moving from there to what they think the poem is saying. You may want to use the following prompts after recording on the board what they have noticed:
With what do you associate the image of the peach tree? The birds? The desert?
Is there a pattern to where the extra spaces and lines are in the poem? Why do you think they are placed where they are?
What do you think Juan Felipe Herrera is saying in this poem? Explain your ideas using evidence from the poem and no other source.
Ask your students to write poems that show their perspectives on immigration using detailed images and/or unusual line or word placement. They can illustrate their poems with photographs, if they wish.
With your students 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 metaphoric language? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? You may also want to prompt them to evaluate the appropriateness of their word and sentence spacing on the page.
Have your students read “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus using the reading methodology outlined above. Ask them to write an essay that compares and contrasts this poem with “Every Day We Get More Illegal.” What have they learned about immigration from their study of these two poems? How can we work together to create a community where people feel safe and, at the same time, honored as human beings?
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.