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.
By calling her poem “The Great Migration,” Minnie Bruce Pratt immediately brings to mind the period of 1900–1970, when millions of African Americans left the South to seek work and better lives in the North. It, therefore, seems surprising that the first stanza of her poem contains a question in Spanish, “De donde eres tu?” Where are you from? In this way, Pratt begins associations to other migrations—from Guatemala and Chile to the United States, and by connection, to those migrations anywhere people go in search of better lives. In the end, Pratt’s speaker offers a small gesture of kindness to someone “she’d never have known back home.” Migrations within—and to and from—the United States, and their consequences, are a part of our common heritage. Pratt’s poem helps illustrate this ebb and flow.
The following sequence of activities is designed to help students think about the associations with migration that Minnie Bruce Pratt brings to mind in her poem. The activities also seek 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 the activities to meet the particular learning styles and needs of your students.
A Note About Vocabulary
Ask your students to keep a running list on the front board of the words they read and hear, but 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.
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
- Students will create tableaux as a means to understand a historic migration expressed in the narrative of a poem.
- Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing a poet read a poem.
- Students will explore poetry as a way to develop empathy.
- Students will express their understanding of the migration experience through original poetry.
English, Social Studies
Tell your students they will be studying the poem “The Great Migration” by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and that, before they read the poem, they will engage in some activities that will help them understand the poem better.
Activity 1: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will discuss the meaning of the word migration and cite examples of migrations about which they know something.
- Ask your students to get into small groups of no more than four people. One student in each group will be the recorder. The recorder will write down the ideas expressed by the group. The groups should discuss the following questions. (Remind your students that migrations can occur over long or short distances, across borders or not.)
- What does the word migration mean?
- Do other beings in nature migrate? Why?
- Did your family or your ancestors migrate from one place to another? Why?
- Can you think of any migrations happening now? Why do you think they are happening?
Activity 2: Creating Tableaux
Objective: Students will use details from their discussion to create tableaux about the possible causes and outcomes of migration.
Using the notes that the recorder has taken, each group will create two tableaux (still snapshots). The first tableau will show why a group is leaving someplace to migrate somewhere else. The second tableau will show what the migrants discover when they arrive at their destination.
Activity 3: Presenting and Noticing Tableaux
Objective: Students will begin to develop empathy.
The first group will present their first tableau as the nonpresenting students watch and take notes about what they see in the positioning and gestures the group used. Follow this procedure for all the groups. When they are finished follow the same procedure again, for the second tableaux.
Activity 4: Whole-Class Discussion
Objective: Students will synthesize a summary of what they think migration means for people when they leave, and what they might discover when they arrive.
Ask your students to use their notes to tell you what they think the experience of migration is. Make sure they give you evidence from both the small group discussions they had and what they observed and experienced in the tableaux.
Activity 1: Reading the Poem
Objective: Students will identify words, images, and phrases that jump out at them in the poem, as well as the unusual placement of words on the page.
- Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down the words, images, phrases, and word placements that jump out at them.
- Have each stanza of the poem read by a different student. Before they read, ask them to think about how they might represent the way the stanzas [ are placed on the page through their reading. While they read, the other students should be listening for new and different words and images that jump out at
Activity 2: Listening to Minnie Bruce Pratt read “The Great Migration”
Objective: Students will notice the difference between reading a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading her poem.
- Tell your students that when they listen to the audio, they will record what they notice when Minnie Bruce Pratt reads her poem. Ask them to pay close attention to the way she reads the different stanzas. What do they hear differently now? Make sure they record their new perceptions with their other notes.
- Play the audio of Minnie Bruce Pratt reading her poem.
Activity 3: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will collaboratively synthesize what they have noticed from reading and listening to the poem.
- Ask your students to work in small groups to share what they have noticed. Guide them to talk about the spacing of the stanzas on the page and what they think it might mean. If they need a hint, remind them that migration always involves some kind of movement from one place to another.
- How many speakers are there in the poem? Who are they? How does the spacing of the stanzas help them understand this?
- Thinking back to the tableaux they created before they read the poem, your students should also talk about why the migrants in the poem left where they were and what they discovered in their destinations, citing specific details from the text.
Activity 1: Small-Group Work
Objective: Students will use their synthesis of details from the poem to create shared meaning based on evidence.
Ask your students to share their lists of specific details from their exploration of the poem’s content and structure. Based on their sharing, the group should come up with one list. Tell them one person from each group will report this list to the whole class.
Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion
Objective: Students will glean meaning from poetic structure and content.
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.
- Ask each group representative to report the details their group has noticed. Make sure they talk about the placement of the stanzas, as well as the poem’s content. Record these details on the board. If the later reporting groups have duplicates of what has been said, place a check next to the detail for each repetition. At the end of the reporting session, circle the details with the most checks. These seem to be most interesting to your students.
- What is happening in the poem? What is its story? It may be helpful to your students to go back to the poem again, one stanza at a time, to see if any of the details circled on the board are in a particular stanza. These details can help support your students’ interpretations of meaning in the poem.
- How does it relate to the first migration mentioned in the poem? Why is it cited later on?
- What other migrations are mentioned? How are they similar to, or different from, the Great Migration?
- Why does Beatrice give onions to the person she met in Spanish class? What is Minnie Bruce Pratt trying to tell us by including this action in her poem?
Ask your students to write a poem (or short narrative essay) in which they take on the persona of one of the speakers in “The Great Migration.” (If you wish, you might instead ask them to write about their family or ancestors.) Have them:
- imagine the details of where this person came from, why this person left, and whether this person is better or worse off at their new destination.
- include a situation in which the person in their new destination encounters someone from their old home, such as the encounter between the speaker in the poem and the young woman in her Spanish class. What happens—at the beginning of the encounter, in the middle, and at the end?
- make sure the structure of their poem (or essay) in some way illustrates the narrative of their person.
With your students, develop an evaluation tool for their work using the terms exemplary, proficient, developing, and basic. What, do they (and you) think are the basic characteristics of an exemplary poem (or essay) that shows an encounter like the one described above? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? Remind them to include items such as vivid details that help us get to know the two people, why the person migrated and how they feel, proper spelling and grammar; and how the structure of the poem (essay) represents the narrative.
- Ask your students to go to the Phillips Collection website to view its collection of images from The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence. How does viewing the images of the paintings further expand your students’ understanding of the poem “The Great Migration”?
- When a person migrates, where is their home? Have your students explore the concept of home through discussion and writing.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.