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.
In 1860 the original version of “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman rhythmically celebrated common citizens as they went about their daily lives as individuals and as part of the American whole. Flash forward to January 2009 when President Barack Obama gave his first inaugural address echoing Whitman’s style. Similarly, for that same occasion, Elizabeth Alexander, the inaugural poet wrote and delivered an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” that also echoes Whitman. Despite the different time periods, and differences in issues facing our country, Whitman’s poetic style continues to resonate with modern America. This lesson explores those echoes within a twenty-first-century inaugural speech and poem as they anticipate the future of a renewed American community.
The following activities seek to level the playing field among diverse learners by including multiple ways to enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poems. Feel free to adjust them to meet the particular learning styles and needs of your students.
A Note about Vocabulary
There are several texts in this lesson plan, all of which may have complicated vocabulary for some of your students. 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 on these words where students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections, or go through this process as you progress through the activities in the lesson.
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
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem
Students will identify poetic elements in a speech
Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video
Students will synthesize the echoes from Whitman’s poetry that appear in 21st-century inaugural poetry and speech
Students will explore inaugural poetry as lens through which America can look forward to renewal
English, Social Studies
Activity 1: How Common Citizens Spend Their Time Today
Objective: Students will identify what kinds of work people do in the twenty-first century.
Conduct a whip around, where you ask each student in your class to quickly identify what men and women do as work in this century, both in the workplace and at home. If a student cannot think of something, they can say “pass” and you can return to them after everyone else has finished. Make sure to keep a list of their ideas on the board, since you will return to these shortly.
Activity 2: Small-Group Brainstorming
Objective: Students will collaborate to create the first line or two of a song.
Activity 3: Group Presentations
Objective: Students will present the first line or two of their twenty-first-century work song.
Activity 1: Group Reading
Objective: Students will read lines from a poem so the whole class can hear them.
Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion: Poetic Structure
Objective: Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.
What do you notice about the structure of the lines when you look at the poem? Where is there repetition? What does this kind of structure do in a poem?
Activity 3: Small-Group Discussions
Objective: Students will identify similarities and differences between their work-song lines and “I Hear America Singing.”
Ask your students to get back into their original small groups. Have them discuss what they think are the similarities and differences between what they, and the other groups, wrote and “I Hear America Singing.” Make sure they record their thoughts because they will be used in later activities.
Activity 1: Viewing the Video
Objective: Students will identify poetic elements in President Obama’s rhetoric.
Activity 2: Small-Group discussion
Objective: Students will identify similarities and differences between President Obama’s rhetorical style and Walt Whitman’s poetic style.
Ask your students to form their small groups. Ask them to look for similarities and differences between the president’s speech and Whitman’s poem, using their notes from Activity 1 as reference. Make sure they keep their notes for later use.
Activity 1: Reading the Poem
Objective: Students will identify and record key words and phrases in the poem to use in further analysis.
Activity 1: Viewing the Video
Objective: Students will notice the difference between experiencing a poem on a page and experiencing the poet reading her poem.
Tell your students that, while they are viewing the video of Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem, they are to record on paper what they notice in the poem that is new and different for them. What do they notice about the way Alexander reads the poem? How do her voice and her facial expression reflect the poem and add to it?
Show the video of Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem.
Activity 1: Small-Group Share
Objective: Students will work collaboratively.
Ask your students to return to their small groups to share what they have noticed. They should share the words, phrases, and structure they think is important in “Praise Song for the Day.” What immediately strikes them as similar to, and different from “I Hear America Singing?”
Activity 2: Small-Group Collaboration
Objective: Students will identify the similarities and differences between “Praise Song for the Day” and President Obama’s speech.
Ask each group of students how what they noticed in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is similar to, yet different from, President Obama’s inauguration speech. What might be the contextual reason for their similarities? What is the structural reason for their differences? Why is one classified as a “poem” and one classified as a “speech”?
Activity 3: Whole-Class Synthesis
Objectives: Using evidence from their small group discussions, students will show how Walt Whitman’s words and poetic structure echo in both President Obama’s 2009 inaugural address and Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem.
Using evidence from their small-group discussions, students will identify the important aspects of poetry and rhetoric that are part of a president’s inauguration.
Ask one person from each small group to report the group’s findings. Using this information, as well as information other students may volunteer, conduct a whole-class discussion to:
Ask them to write a compare/contrast essay answering the following questions:
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 characteristics of an exemplary essay that compares “Praise Song for the Day” with “One Today?” A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? Similarly, what are the characteristics of an exemplary, proficient, developing, or basic description of the important elements in these Inaugural poem?
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.