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.
The foundation of a twenty-first-century American community is shared respect among individuals who come from different backgrounds, places, and experiences. Native Americans take that concept even further by valuing all the inhabitants of the earth and sky—animal, vegetable, mineral, and spirit. As first inhabitants of our land, they set a model for inclusiveness in light of diversity. In her poem “Remember,” Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, reminds us to pay attention to who we are and how we’re connected to the world around us.
The following sequence of lessons 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.
A Note about Vocabulary
Have your students keep a running list on the front board of the words they have read and heard that they do not understand (not counting the Western Shoshone words to “Water Song” unless you, one of your students, or someone in your community understands the language). You can either conduct a separate vocabulary lesson on these words where students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.
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 listen to a Native American song for its sounds and rhythms in order to understand how it is structured.
- Students will compare the structures and content of a spoken and written poem to those in a Native American song.
- Students will explore poetry as a means to understand the most important things to remember about their particular heritage.
- Students will explore poetry as a means to understand the most important things to remember to keep American community alive and functioning in twenty-first century.
English, Social Studies
Activity 1: Listening to a Native American Song from the Western Shoshone Tribe
Objective: Students will learn to listen closely and notice aspects of a song when they cannot understand the words.
To introduce your students to the rhythm and sound of a Native American song, ask them to listen to the PBS audio recording of Corbin Harney of the Western Shoshone tribe singing “Water Song.” This song is in Harney’s native language. As they listen, ask them to write down what they hear, e.g., a drum, repeating sounds, or rhythms. Have them listen to the song a second time and again write down what they hear. Note: In the audio, Harney explains the song before he sings it. Please, do not play the explanation before your students hear the song, itself. You will play it for them later.
Credit: Courtesy of Philomath Films, www.philomathfilms.com.
Activity 2: Sharing What You Hear with Peers
Objective: Students will work collaboratively.
Ask your students to get in small groups where they will share what they heard in “Water Song.” Each group should come up with an agreed upon list of what they heard in the song, including how it was structured, as well as the sounds and rhythms. Ask them to assign one person to represent the group’s findings in a larger discussion.
Activity 3: Whole-Class Discussion of “Water Song”
Objective: Students will synthesize information to come to a conclusion.
Ask each appointed group representative to contribute her group’s findings to the whole class. Write these findings on the board in the front of the room. What items appear most often on the board? Circle those items, and create a separate list of the ones mentioned most often. What might this list tell us about some of the characteristics of a Western Shoshone song?
Conduct a whole-class discussion of what your students can learn about this Western Shoshone song, even though they don’t understand the words.
After this discussion, play Corbin Harney’s introduction to the song. Ask your students: What, in addition, can you learn about the song from Corbin Harney’s explanation?
Project in the front of the classroom the poem “Remember.” 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 Joy Harjo structures her lines.
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 and which words are repeated should influence the emphasis they place on words and phrases when they are reading the poem out loud. 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.
Activity 2: Watching Joy Harjo Read “Remember”
Objective: Students will notice the difference between experiencing a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading her poem.
Tell your students that while they are viewing the video of Joy Harjo 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 Joy Harjo reads the poem? How do her voice and her facial expression reflect the poem and add to it?
Show the video of Joy Harjo 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. They should synthesize their findings into one list and choose another person from the group to share this list with the whole class.
In addition, while they are in their groups, ask them to think about how the class synthesis of characteristics from “Water Song” might relate to what they noticed in the poem “Remember.” How does the position of the words on the page influence the rhythm of the way the poem is read?
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 whole-class discussion. Start by having the representatives from each small group (Section II, Activity 3) share their group lists, recording the lists on the front board.
In the discussion, move from talking about the details that were noticed to what those details might mean in the poem. Make sure your students address the structure of the poem, as well as its content. They should look for how the words are placed on the page, as well as metaphoric language. As with the Western Shoshone song, ask your students about which details are mentioned most often and circle them on the board. Create a list of the most commonly mentioned details. Students can use examples from the list of details on the board as evidence to support their thoughts about the poem’s meaning.
Ask your students how the structure of the poem is similar to, or different from, the structure of “Water Song.” What have they learned about the rhythm of the two pieces? Although Joy Harjo and Corbin Harney come from different tribes, what seems to be similar about their worldview? As always, ask your students to provide details from the poem and the song to support their answers.
Ask your students to write a “Remember” poem of their own, using a similar structure to Joy Harjo’s poem. They could address either, or both, of the following questions:
1. What does their particular heritage say are the most important things for them to remember?
2. What do they think are the most important things for us to remember to keep the twenty-first-century American community alive and functioning?
Have them present their poems to one another or to other members of their school community.
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 repetition? A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? You may also want to prompt them to evaluate their choice of metaphors and their use of stanzas.
Read a number of Native American creation myths with your students. What do they learn from reading these that either reinforces or refutes what they have learned about the Native American worldview from Joy Harjo’s poem and Corbin Harney’s song? Ask them to write a compare/contrast essay based on what they have found.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this lesson plan do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.