Teach This Poem, though developed with a classroom in mind, can be easily adapted for remote learning, hybrid learning models, or in-person classes. Please see our suggestions for how to adapt this lesson for remote or blended learning. We have also noted suggestions when applicable and will continue to add to these suggestions online.
Warm-up (quick write): Write one line on a Post-It or piece of scratch paper. Don’t worry too much about your line; just write the first thing that comes to your mind. Once you have your line, give it to your teacher. (Teachers, if you are not meeting in person, we suggest asking students to record their lines on an online platform that you can use later in the lesson.)
Before Reading the Poem: Watch the video of Nina Simone singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” here twice. You might want to play the song with closed captions or provide students with the lyrics. What words and phrases stand out to you? Why? (Teachers, depending on your students, you may wish to flip these two activities and listen to the song first and then complete the quick write.)
Reading the Poem: Read the poem “Cento Between the Ending and the End” by Cameron Awkward-Rich silently. What do you notice about the poem? Annotate for any words or phrases that stand out to you or any questions you might have. (Teachers, if you are meeting synchronously, we suggest sharing a video screen that allows for students to annotate together. If you are meeting asynchronously, we suggest asking students to post or share their annotations in your online classroom platform.)
Listening to the Poem (enlist two volunteers to read the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read aloud twice, and write down any additional words and phrases that stand out to you. You may opt to listen to the poet read the poem aloud here. Call back the lines that you like by saying these lines aloud with your classmates. (Teachers, for synchronous meetings, you could ask two students to read the poem, and for asynchronous meetings, students could read the poem on their own or with a family member.)
Small-group Discussion: Share what you noticed in the poem with a small group of students. A cento is a collage poem composed of lines entirely of other people’s work. (See the glossary below.) How does this idea of collage impact your reading of the poem? In your discussion, pick your favorite line and discuss why this line is your favorite. What does it add to the poem? (Teachers, if meeting in person, you may wish to circulate and ask students to share their favorite lines. If not meeting in person, students can share their favorite line in an online poll.)
Whole-class Discussion: How might the poem compare or contrast with Nina Simone’s song? What do the poem and the song say about freedom?
Extension for Grades 7-8: Continue reading more about centos here and read another cento poem here. (Teachers, if students are meeting in person, you can ask them to each randomly take a line. If students are meeting synchronously or asynchronously you can share a document that includes all of the student-generated lines and favorite lines by Awkward-Rich.) Use the lines generated by your classmates during the warm-up, and the favorite lines you discussed in your small groups, to generate a new poem. Be creative and add language from your favorite musicians, artists, quotes, television shows, etc., and make sure that you cite the source of the original language. Share your poems with your classmates.
Extension for Grades 9-12: Re-read the last four lines of the poem: “Oh / friends, my friends— / bloom how you must, wild / until we are free.” What does freedom mean to you? Write a letter to your future self that imagines this freedom in action.
“I want to write about the abundance of laughter and the beautiful hairstyles. I want to flourish on the shimmy of Black girl shoulders to her favorite song, or the way she high-fives a sister friend at the coffee shop. I want to undo my own braids and run my fingers through my hair walking down the street–but ain’t no street safe for a Black girl’s joy.” In the series Addressing Mass Incarceration through Poetry, Mahogany L. Browne offered original essays about the communities most harmed by mass incarceration—especially women and children—alongside related poems curated from our collection.