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.


Featured Poem

From the Poet

About this poem, the poet Lois Red Elk writes, “In the Dakota/Lakota culture the story of the turtle carries a life of longevity and purposeful living. We make turtle amulets out of deerskin and present them to new mothers who have female babies. The prayer and promise with the amulet is that the child will have a long, purpose-filled life. A small portion of the baby's dried umbilical cord (the last connection between the mother and baby) is sewn into the amulet and kept with the child’s clothing. The prayer and knowledge is that the turtle spirit now cares for the child spirit. Also, when the child matures and has their first dream, they are fed turtle soup. The dream is always good and reveals a lesson or purpose for the child. We celebrate with the child by telling them that the turtle spirit and energy, in the soup, is transferred into the child and will guide and protect the child in and through their dreams.”

Classroom Activities

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.

  1. Warm-up (individual research and small-group discussion): Use a computer or tablet to find out everything you can about the history of the Dakota/Lakota people. Share what you learned with the other students in your group.
  2. Before Reading the Poem (individual reading and small-group discussion): Read the paragraph written by the poet Lois Red Elk and circle the words and phrases that jump out at you. In your small groups, discuss why you think these traditions are important in the Dakota/Lakota culture. Cite evidence from the poet’s words.
  3. Reading the Poem: Read the poem silently, then record the words, phrases, and structures that jump out at you.
  4. 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 you notice.
  5. Small-group Discussion: Write down four or five of the poem’s words or phrases on colored notecards and fix them to the wall of your classroom. After everyone has done this, look at the notecards with your small group. What do you notice? What words and phrases occur most often? (These can help you as evidence in further discussions and writing.)
  6. Whole-class Discussion: Compare and contrast what you learned from the poet’s note and from the poem. What did the poet tell us in one that she did not tell us in the other? What is your evidence?
  7. Extension for Grades 7-10: Imagine a “coming of age” tradition for your class. What are the values you would include? What is the activity (or activities) you would include? Why? Write about this tradition in either a poem or an essay.
  8. Extension for Grades 11-12: What is a “coming of age” tradition in your family’s culture? Research any rituals or activities that are associated with this tradition. What are the values inherent in these rituals? Do you agree or disagree with these rituals, these values? Why or why not? What would you change to make these rituals and values more agreeable to you? Write an essay about what this new tradition might look like, and defend your reasons for preserving or changing specific aspects.
More Context for Teachers

In “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets,” Joy Harjo writes, “The English language does not exist in a vacuum. Because it is an earthly creation of human communication, it is in a constant state of flux. English is renewed by use, especially by poets who have one of the most intimate relationships with it. The language then becomes a keeper, if you will, of cultural movement, ideas—a storehouse. For many indigenous poets, it is poetry that makes a bridge between indigenous spoken traditions and written English texts.” Read more.

Read more poems for Native American Heritage Month.