These lessons focus on "songs" about the American experience at different points in history:

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman
I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes
Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Walt Whitman wrote his song when the United States was a relatively new country. Langston Hughes wrote in the early 20th Century, when there was still much discrimination against African Americans. And Elizabeth Alexander wrote her praise song early in the 21st Century, when the first African American President of the United States was inaugurated.

Among other perspectives, the poems offer snapshots of daily life at the time when they were written.  The lessons that follow, aligned with Common Core Standards, ask your students first to look deeply at life around them and use rich language to describe what they see and feel, then read the three poems collaboratively. After reading the poems, we ask them to write their own poem songs that portray the people and daily life they perceive.

As with the lessons on Ghosts and Spirits, in order to reach diverse learners, you should look at the activities as suggestions from which you can choose in order to help all your students learn.  You can choose one warm-up or several.  The same is true for pre- and post-activities.

A Note About Lesson Integration:  Since these lessons refer to poems that illustrate periods in American History, Social Studies and English teachers may be interested in working together to include these poems across their subject areas.  In addition, the Common Core Standards referenced below are for the high school years (9-12), so you can teach the poems in several grades. 


Literature Common Core Standards Addressed in These Activities

Reading, Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL.9-10.4 and 11-12.4

Writing, Text Types and Purposes:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3d and 11-12.3d

Speaking and Listening, Comprehension and Collaboration:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. SL.9-10.1d and 11-12. 1d


Studying the Poems


Students will:

  1. Hone their skills of observation and perception
  2. Increase their precision in using descriptive language
  3. Understand and appreciate multiple perspectives
  4. Apply what they have learned in a new situation—writing poems in their own voices


Whole Class Warm-up:

  • Ask students to take out their journals, or an appropriate piece of writing paper
  • Tell them they will have five minutes to look around the room, pick two or three things that interest them and describe them
  • Ask them to use rich, descriptive language that gives a real sense of the object
  • Model what you want them to do by picking an object in the room and describing it out loud using the kind of language you would like to see in their work.

Small Group Work:

This lesson can be done either outside the school building in a location where there are people (e.g. a neighborhood street, a playground, a farm or factory building) during class time or as homework. It can also be done in school where students observe the wide variety of people that make a school happen.

Outside of School During school hours

  • Since you are taking your students out of the building, even if not very far, you should treat this as a trip and have an extra adult or two along.
  • Take your students to a location that is busy enough so they see people doing something.
  • Ask them to watch a person, or people, carefully, and write descriptive notes about what they see them doing. 
  • They should make sure to capture the following levels of what they see—ground level, foot level, waist level, eye level, top of the person’s head, above the person’s head
  • How do they think that person feels about what s/he is doing? What in their description of the person contributes to that feeling?
  • Ask students to capture how they feel about what they see and their overall reaction.
  • Back in class, ask them to do a pair share, telling someone what they saw using the descriptive language they wrote down.  The person who is not sharing what they saw should ask questions about what is not clear.
  • Ask the students in the pairs to shift roles.

Outside of School After School Hours—Homework

  • Ask your students to find a place near their homes where there are people doing something and they feel comfortable watching them for a period of time.
  • Follow the last six bullets above.

Inside of School During School Hours

  • Secure whatever permission you need to have your students observe people inside the school building.  You may want to have small groups go to the library, administrative offices, the cafeteria, the janitor’s workrooms, etc.
  • Divide your class into groups no larger than three students each, if possible.
  • Follow the last six bullets as above.

Collaborative Reading:

This reading activity focuses on the poems as a group.  You, of course, can also focus more on the study of each one.

  • Divide your students into small groups, no more than four students in each, if possible.
  • Give each group copies of one of the three poems.
  • Ask each group to pick a recorder/reporter and a facilitator who will make sure each person in the group speaks
  • The facilitator asks
    • One person to read the poem out loud for the group
    • Another person to read the poem out loud
    • What jumps out at you in the poem? What do you see?
    • Who is “singing” in the poem?
    • What does the poet mean by “singing?”
    • What do you think the poem is about?
    • What questions do you have about the poem?
  • The recorder/reporter takes notes on what the group says and checks back with group members to make sure her notes represent what the group wants to say.

After Reading the Poem:

Whole class activity:
At this point, make sure all students have copies of all three poems. Ask each recorder/reporter to answer the following questions:

  • Who is “singing” in your group’s poem?  Why does the group think that?
  • What does the poet mean by “singing?”
  • What is the poem about?
  • What questions does your group have about the poem that they would like to pose to other members of the class?

Facilitate a discussion to develop a shared understanding of each poem.  In addition, you can discuss different ways a poem can be a song or about singing.


Writing Activity

After reading and analyzing the poems, ask your students to go back to their notes about the person (people) they observed and revise them.  They should also pay attention to the way they thought their people felt, and the way they felt about their person.

Ask your students to write a short poem describing the person (people) including how and why they “sing.” Ask them to make sure their “song” reflects how they feel about their people.


Vocabulary Words

Ask your students to list words in the poems they do not understand.  These might include:


Have a whole class discussion about their meanings.