Poetry typed on a typewriter
K-12EducatorsEnglish Language Arts and LiteracyThe Arts

Exploring History Through Poetry – Lesson Plan

Students research the historical references in “Alabama Centennial” and create an informational presentation explaining the references in the poem.

  • Length: 5 class periods
  • Grades: 9-12

Concepts/Objectives:

  • Students identify literary references to important events in African-American history.
  • Students analyze how a dramatic reading interprets historical events.
  • Students create a presentation that describes important historical events in a creative way.

Resource Used:
Words Like Freedom
Found On: Performance Excerpts

Vocabulary, Materials, and Handouts

Vocabulary:
performance elements, purposes of drama; specialized vocabulary: Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights, Jim Crow laws, marches, nonviolent protest, sit-ins, Voting Rights Act

Materials:
TV/VCR or DVD player, copies of the poem “Alabama Centennial”

Handouts:

  • Exploring History Through Poetry Research Questions

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Instructional Strategies and Activities

About Words Like Freedom/Sturdy Black Bridges
This 60-minute KET production is made up of two parts: Words Like Freedom, which explores the historic struggle of black people in America for freedom and equality, and Sturdy Black Bridges, which highlights the experiences, both pleasurable and painful, of African-American women. Both celebrate the African-American legacy of the written and the spoken word. The program features poets and performers Priscilla Hancock Cooper and Dhana Donaldson, who use oral performance to breathe life into the words of African-American writers.

Pre-Video Activities
Distribute the words of the poem “Alabama Centennial.” You can find them online at the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement web site. Ask students to read the poem to themselves and to make notes on a separate sheet of paper, listing the historical references they find in the poem. Students should also write questions they have about these references on their paper, such as, “What is the significance of Greensboro?”

Viewing Activities
Watch the video excerpt of “Alabama Centennial” from Words Like Freedom. It is the second poem in the excerpt, following the Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • What is the tone of this poem?
  • How does the performer’s interpretation convey that tone?

Discuss the performance elements employed by the actress as she delivers the poem. The creators of Words Like Freedom, Priscille Hancock Cooper and Dhana Donaldson, devised this “poetic concert,” as they call it, to explore the historic struggle of black people in America for freedom and equality. Discuss the purposes of drama in connection with the choice of this poem as part of the poetic concert.

About the Artists
Priscilla Hancock Cooper and Dhana Donaldson are spoken-word artists whose creative collaboration began in Louisville more than 20 years ago. Their first “poetic concert,” I Have Been Hungry All My Years, was presented at the 1981 National Conference on the Black Family. In 1984 they co-founded the Theatre Workshop of Louisville, which built a dynamic reputation under Dhana’s guidance as producing artistic director for ten years. With TWL they combined their writing and directing talents on Four Women (1985) and God’s Trombone (1991) and performed together in Amazing Grace (1993). Their creative collaboration has endured over time and distance. Priscilla now lives in Birmingham, AL, where she is a consultant to arts and education institutions both there and in Louisville and where she has established a reputation as a poet and writer. Dhana continues her work as an arts administrator, consultant, and performer from her base in Cincinnati. They return often to Kentucky and are available for performances. In fact, a new version of Words Like Freedom continues to be a performance in their repertoire.

Post-Video Activities

  1. Write these terms and phrases on the board:

    civil rights
    slavery
    Jim Crow laws
    Brown v. Board of Education
    sit-ins
    marches
    Voting Rights Act

    Distribute the “Exploring History Through Poetry Research Questions” handout. This handout does not include all of the references to historical events found in the poem, but it will help students isolate the historical events they need to research. After looking at what the students have come up with on their own, you may choose to let students use their own questions for research.

  2. Ask students to research the historical events mentioned in the poem, explaining the references in the poem and their historical significance.
  3. Have students create informative presentations based on what they’ve learned from the poem. These could be dramatic readings, PowerPoint® presentations, collages, or timelines.
  4. Assess the students’ understanding of the historical references in the poem and their projects. This is an opportunity for them to show what they know by interpreting historical events creatively.

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Writing To Communicate

  • Literary writing: Have students select a contemporary issue of personal significance to them and write a poem that explores or interprets that issue. Ask students to use descriptive language and literary devices.

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Applications Across the Curriculum

Language Arts

  • Have students select a writer who has written about the civil rights movement or about the experiences of African-American women and ask them to read more of their work. Have them present what they’ve learned about that writer to the class along with a brief reading from the writer’s work. Some writers to consider include Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, Carolyn Rodgers, Dudley Randall, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison.

Social Studies

  • Show the complete 30-minute performance of Words Like Freedom. Have students write about and discuss what they learn about the issues and attitudes that faced African Americans in their struggle for citizenship rights. Ask students to explain how the video reinforced, contradicted, or changed their previous knowledge or perceptions.
  • Show the 30-minute performance of Sturdy Black Bridges. Have students write about and discuss what they learn about the experiences of African-American women. Again, ask them to explain how the video reinforced, contradicted, or changed their previous knowledge or perceptions.
  • Have students research and prepare a presentation on the relationship between the civil rights movement and the women’s movement since the Civil War.

Cross-Disciplinary

  • Have students research, write, and perform short role-plays about the men and women who have been activists in the struggle for African-American freedom, from slavery through today. Examples: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Have students watch and analyze the actions, voice, breath control, diction, and body alignment of the two performers. How does their presentation of the material communicate the themes/messages of the poem? Have students apply what they’ve learned about the dramatic performance of poetry to their own performance of a poem, either their own or one by a poet of their choice.
  • Have students find and bring in a rap recording that deals with one of the themes in “Alabama Centennial” (e.g., freedom, identity, pride). Have students write and perform, either individually or in groups, their own rap about one of these themes.

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Performance Assessment

Performance Event:
Students create an informative presentation based on the poem “Alabama Centennial.”

Directions:

  • Research the historical references in “Alabama Centennial.”
  • Create a presentation that further describes and creatively interprets the poem’s references. Options for the presentation include dramatic readings, story vignettes, PowerPoint® slides, timelines, or collages.
  • You will be assessed on your understanding of key historical events. Research how the following terms relate to the poem: civil rights, slavery, Jim Crow laws, Brown v. Board of Education, sit-ins, marches, and the Voting Rights Act.

Performance Scoring Guide

4 3 2 1 0
Student demonstrates an excellent understanding of the historical references in the poem. All seven phrases described in the directions are included in the presentation. The information in the presentation or product is accurate. The presentation or product shows creativity and attention to detail. Student demonstrates a good understanding of the historical references in the poem. At least five terms described in the directions are included in the presentation. The information in the presentation or product is generally accurate. The presentation or product shows creativity. Student demonstrates an understanding of the historical references in the poem. At least three phrases described in the directions are included in the presentation. The presentation or product shows some creativity. Student demonstrates some understanding of the historical references in the poem. Fewer than three phrases described in the directions are included in the presentation. Student does not participate.

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Support - Connections - Resources - Author

  • Civil Rights Movement Veterans (crm.vet.org) includes stories, information, and poetry from veterans of the movement, including the text of the poem “Alabama Centennial” by Naomi Long Madgett.
  • The Rise and Fall of Jim Crowe a companion web site to the PBS series, offers narratives, maps, and images regarding the civil rights movement and African-American history.
  • The Civil Rights Era from the Library of Congress African-American Odyssey project (memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart9.html) features items from a related exhibit, including newspapers, music, and photographs.
  • KET broadcast schedule and downloadable teacher’s guide (PDF format) for Words Like Freedom/Sturdy Black Bridges

Author:
Mary Henson

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