Teach This Poem is a weekly series featuring a poem from our online poetry collection, accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help K-12 teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom.
The following activities and questions are designed to help your students use their noticing skills to move through the poem and develop their thinking about its meaning with confidence, using what they’ve noticed as evidence for their interpretations. Read more about the framework upon which these activities are based.
- Warm-up (individual writing): Think about the well-known song “America the Beautiful.” How does this song make you feel? Add some of the reasons you feel this way. (If you cannot call the song to mind, think instead about how the phrase America the beautifulmakes you feel.)
- Before Reading the Poem: Listen twice to Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” (He adds his own words at the beginning in praise of veterans and soldiers. This may be difficult to understand, but the rest of his lyrics are clear.) The first time just listen all the way through to get an idea of how he sings this song. The second time, write down what you hear when he sings—the lyrics, the tone, the emotions he evokes in you. Is this arrangement what you expected? Why, or why not? Share what you have written in a small group.
- Reading the Poem: Read the poem by Claude McKay silently, then write down the words and phrases, and structures that jump out at you.
- Listening to the Poem (enlist two volunteers to read the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read aloud and write down any additional words and phrases that jump out at you.
- Small-group Discussion: Share the words and phrases that jumped out at you when you read and heard the poem. What do these words and phrases tell you about how the speaker in the poem feels about America? Does the way the speaker feels change over the course of the poem, or does it seem to stay the same?
- Whole-class Discussion: Based on what you noticed in the song and the poem, what are the similarities and differences between the feelings Ray Charles evokes about America and the way the speaker in Claude McKay’s poem seems to feel? How might our country’s history influence these feelings? (Teachers, consider collaborating with a Social Studies teacher who has in-depth knowledge of the foundations of the United States in general and African American history in particular.)
- Extension for Grades 7–8: Claude McKay wrote “America” in the form of a sonnet. (Teachers, this is a good time to introduce the sonnet form, if you have not already done so.) This poem was first published in 1921, at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Learn more about this literary movement, of which McKay was a key figure, then consider why he might have chosen to write this particular poem in such a traditional form.
- Extension for Grades 9–12: What do you think the speaker in the poem might mean in the last four lines? Try to write a poem (perhaps in the form of a sonnet) that shows, through powerful images, how you feel about the ideals on which America was founded and what you see happening to this foundation today.
More Context for Teachers
In a conversation with Ishion Hutchinson, Yusef Komunyakaa says, “What is it to be an American? I think that we internalize regional attitudes and what-have-you. I think we internalize the landscape and that internalized landscape is how we see and face the world, that’s the lens we see through. Again, this idea of celebrating and confronting, that’s part of it as well.” Read more.