This lesson was developed by the Academy of American Poets in collaboration with a small group of New York City elementary school teachers who are creating social studies curricula aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  We focused on Walt Whitman’s "Manahatta," since the teachers were looking at New York State as the focus of fourth grade work.  Obviously, Whitman’s work is universal, and a number of his poems can become a vibrant part of many curricular areas.  This lesson, in particular, focuses on Whitman’s keen sense of detail and can help teachers and students alike sharpen their own skills for deeply noticing images and the words that make images come alive in new ways.

As always, feel free to use parts of this lesson, or all of it, and modify the activities to meet the needs of your particular students.


Common Core State Standards Addressed

Grade 4, ELA

Reading, Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
     Craft and Structure: 4

Speaking and Listening: 1, 2



Interdisciplinary Connections

Social Studies, Literacy, and English, Language Arts



Activities before Reading the Poem

In order to allow diverse learners to engage with the poem "Manahatta," the activities below which start with students looking closely at a print and a photograph. This gives visual learners, English language learners, and most students with special needs equal footing with those more proficient initially with learning from English words.

Project a copy of the Currier and Ives print of New York City in 1856 on the board.  (You may also wish to give small groups of students individual copies of the print.) Ask students to:

  1. Write in their notebooks what they see in the image.
  2. Share their observations with their table groups (or another small group you have assigned for this purpose.)
  3. Modify their list of observations based on their discussion with others.

Have a large group discussion with your students about what they notice in the image. Write these noticings on the board, or on a large flip chart so you can hang the students’ observations around the room. If they come up with an interpretation of what they see, rather than what is precisely in the image, ask them to point to the evidence for their interpretation. Point out if their interpretation is based on prior knowledge they might have.

Now project the Mulberry Street photograph and/or give the students copies of the image. Go through the same process of looking closely at the image. Make sure as many students as possible participate in the large group conversation.  They all should have something to say about what they saw. (Of course, teachers with blind students will have to modify this activity appropriately.)

At the end off these two discussions, ask your students to write down whatever questions they might have in their notebooks. Back in the large group, ask them for their questions. Keep a record of these on the board or a flip chart. They can be referred to after the poetry lesson as social studies content questions students can pursue further through either group or individual research.


Reading the Poem "Manahatta"

Explain to your students that the prior activity helped them sharpen their skills of perception, which is the foundation for the deep learning they need to do. They will now use these same skills as they read the poem, together and alone, look closely at the words to see how the poem was written, and figure out what the poem seems to be saying to them as readers.

Choral Reading: Give each student a copy of the poem. Go around the room and ask each student to read a line or two and stop when there is a capital letter at the beginning of the line. The next student will read that line or two until she comes to a capital letter at the beginning of a new line. Someone else takes over from here. Repeat this process until the poem is finished.

Individual Reading:  After the choral reading, ask each student to read the poem silently on their own, circling the words and phrases that seem to “jump out at them.” They should also circle words whose meaning they do not know. These words will be compiled into a class list for later discussion.

Partner Discussion:  Ask your students to turn and talk with a partner about what they noticed in the poem. What phrases jumped out? What did Whitman see? 

When you walk around the room during these discussions, you might ask the following:  How did he write his lines? How does Whitman feel about what he sees? How do they know that? How does the poem make them feel?

Large Group Discussion:  What did they notice in the poem? What connections could they make between the poem and the images at which they just looked? How is the poem the same as the visual images? How is it different?

Why does the group think Whitman wrote this poem? What is their evidence for how he feels about "Manahatta"? What questions do they have about the poem?


Follow-Up Activities

You might want to try the following after you have read "Manahatta," depending on the needs and interests of your students:

  1. A vocabulary lesson, based on the word list developed by the students.
  2. Individual or small group research based on the questions generated by the images and the poem.
  3. Further study of Walt Whitman and his poems.
  4. Connections to other topics in your curriculum.
  5. Any imaginative idea of your own that furthers your students’ deep learning of text!