"Wow" Your Students with Poetry, Music, and Art in this Introduction to American Literature Unit



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In the high school English classroom, how do you get your students started for their school year? After establishing a positive classroom culture, I dive straight into content. Of course, it’s important to establish routines and get to know students, too, but at the secondary level, students should be reading and writing as soon as possible.

That’s why my introductory unit for American Literature gets students thinking about class topics while also helping me get to know them. The unit, “Name Yourself, Sing Yourself, and Proclaim Yourself,” incorporates poetry, music, art, and writing. Generally, it takes two – three weeks when interspersed with other lessons such as grammar, vocabulary, and independent reading.

Exploring American Voice and Personal Identity

1. Students begin with the poem, “Naming Myself” by Barbara Kingsolver  This narrative poem tells about the speaker’s grandparents and her Native American heritage. While the speaker realizes that she could “shed her name in the middle of life/the ordinary thing,” she chooses to keep her maiden name to honor her ancestors and individuality. This poem leads to interesting discussions with students about why women change their names when they get married, the importance of names to identity, and what the students plan to do about their names if they get married in the future.  My students are stunned when I ask the boys if they are willing to taking their wives names. 
Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_worawut17'>worawut17 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
After I model how to analyze the poem, my students read a variety of other poems that introduce them to American voices. Depending on the needs and abilities of my students, I select poems to differentiate instruction. Some of these poems include “I Hear American Singing” and “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, “I, Too,” and “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, and “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.This exposes students to a range of authors and time periods but focuses on a central theme, American identity. Usually, these poems are simple enough that they don’t intimidate students, and they provide scaffolding for the next activity in the unit.

2. As the unit continues, students read and listen to songs

high school english
about America. I vary the songs to reflect different genres and time periods and have often included the following: "The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key, "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie, "The Times They Are a Changin’" by Bob Dylan, "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" by Toby Keith, and "American Idiot" by Green Day. Sometimes I consider current issues in the news, and I find additional songs online to connect with those topics.

Through a jigsaw activity, students analyze the song lyrics as poems and consider what each song tells them about America. Music reveals what is going on in the country at a particular time and also about the sentiments of the people. Song lyrics are much like poetry, so as students listen to and read lyrics, they can highlight words and lines that exemplify attitudes about America.

This year I'd love to include Childish Gambino's song and video "This is America."  However, it will likely depend on the maturity of my students whether I use it for the unit.


For enrichment, students are invited to bring in their own school appropriate songs and share the related themes with their classmates. This is always a popular lesson with them! 


3. In the next part of the unit, I add art. Students “read” non-print texts, self-portraits by classic American artists including Mary Cassatt, William H. Johnson, E.E. Cummings, Andy Warhol, Helen Hardin, and Chuck Close. Once again, I try to include diverse artists to ensure that students learn about the many types of people who live in America. They learn that reading images is much like reading words, requiring them to focus on details (in this case, such elements as color, shapes, composition, facial expressions, and body language). Then they use the “text evidence” and make inferences.


4. This activity segues to them making their own self-portraits. These can be illustrations, collages, or other artistic creations. Some students find that it’s easier for them to communicate their ideas visually, and it encourages my artistic students to demonstrate their talents. Furthermore, the portraits look fabulous displayed in my classroom. 
This activity is timely for the first weeks of school as it helps us get to know one another. Even students who may have been in school together for years, learn new things about each other. Since our class is an English class, however, I require students to also write explanations for the images in their portraits. They reflect on the images that they’ve included in their artwork and explain what these details reveal about them.

5. In the culminating activity, students use the self-portraits to brainstorm more ideas about their identities as individuals and Americans. These reflections become the pre-writing for a poem (get a free lesson) that they write about themselves and which we take through the writing process.

This unit  took me several years to develop and takes 2-3 weeks with each activity connecting to the following ones. At times, I modify the lessons, adding new texts and activities. For instance, to include nonfiction, I’ve used John McCain’s essay in Time Magazine, “A Cause Greater Than Self.”  Throughout the weeks of the unit, I also use journals about the American Dream as bell ringers to help students extend their thinking.  One of my favorite journals incorporates the classic painting,

American Gothic. Furthermore, I may also teach mini-lessons on writing theme statements or how to provide effective peer feedback. This unit is part of a bundle of lessons that I teach in American literature.  I have a free pacing guide with journal prompts that you can get too!

I love that this unit capitalizes on students’ multiple intelligences, introduces them to classic American literature, and helps create a positive classroom culture


Do you have texts that you would recommend for this unit? I’m always looking for new ideas. Please share in the comments below.

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