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.
- Explain to your students that the first poem they will read together is called “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, and that it was written 1860. As preparation, ask them to begin to think about how America “sings” today.
- Have your students get into groups of no more than four students. Ask them to share the types of work they identified in the whip around and pick one type of work for which they will develop the first line or two of a song about that work that is true to the rhythm of twenty-first-century music.
Activity 3: Group Presentations
Objective: Students will present the first line or two of their twenty-first-century work song.
- Ask each small group to present the first line or two of their work song to the class. Remind them to use a proper introduction and appropriately loud voices.
- While the groups are presenting, the students who are watching/listening should record what stands out to them in the “songs.”
Activity 1: Group Reading
Objective: Students will read lines from a poem so the whole class can hear them.
- Project the poem “I Hear America Singing” from Poets.org. Note this poem is a later version (1867) and is not the original.
- Ask one student to read a line of the poem, then stop. Continue going around the room, asking a student to read a line that begins with a capital letter, then stop. Continue until the end of the poem.
- Repeat the above process, asking different students to read the lines. During the second reading, the students who are listening should be writing down the words and phrases that jump out to them.
Activity 2: Whole-Class Discussion: Poetic Structure
Objective: Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.
- Ask your students:
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?
- Is there a rhythm to the poem? How does Whitman accomplish this rhythm?
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.
- Show your students the first eight minutes of President Barak Obama’s first inaugural address twice.
- The first time, ask them to watch it straight through. The second time, ask them to jot down things that “jump out at them” in the speech.
- Ask any or all of the following questions to help them write down what they notice:
What do they hear? Is there any repetition? If so, where?
What words and phrases seem important? Why?
Does there seem to be a rhythm to his speech? If so, how does he achieve it?
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.
- Project Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” from Poets.org.
- Ask one student to read the entire poem aloud followed by another student reading the poem. The first time your students hear the poem, they should just listen to it, and follow the words in the written poem. The second time, ask your students to record the words and phrases that jump out at them.
- What else do they notice when they look at the written poem? Ask them to write down their additional thoughts with supporting details.
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:
- synthesize the echoes from Walt Whitman’s poetry that appear in President Obama’s speech and in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, and consider why they used them, and
- brainstorm ideas for important elements to include in inaugural rhetoric and poetry.
Ask them to write a compare/contrast essay answering the following questions:
- What does this poem have in common with “Praise Song for the Day?”
- How are the two poems different?
- How do they represent the historical context in which they were written?
- Based on your answers to the above questions what do you think were the important elements in these two inaugural poems? Cite evidence for your conclusion.
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?
- Ask your students to complete the twenty-first-century work “songs” they started in the first activity of this lesson plan.
- Read the full text of several other inaugural speeches, e.g. that of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Ask your students to write an inaugural speech as if they were the next president of the United States, using what they know about this time period and the force of repetition as a rhetorical device.
- Ask your students to write inaugural poems as if they were the next inaugural poet of the United States. How would they build on what they have learned about the rhythmic structures of “I Hear America Singing” and “Praise Song for the Day?” How would they include what they know about work in the twenty-first-century (see Section I, Activity 1) to include all Americans as individuals and parts of an American whole?
- Richard Blanco’s “One Today” has been turned into a picture book for young children. Ask your students to illustrate their own inaugural poems, as if they were creating a picture book. Have your students present their poems/speeches/picture books to one another or to other members of their school community.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.