Lesson Plan: Exploring Diversity through Found Poetry

This lesson can be used in teaching poetry and was inspired by the book Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice by Linda Christensen. Students will read and write resistance poetry, culminating in a multimedia poetry collection.

Objective: Students will work collaboratively to write a “found poem” that analyzes and defines what it means to be American. According to FacingHistory.org, a found poem “is created using only words, phrases, or quotations that have been selected and rearranged from another text.” For example, a student might take an existing poem or a paragraph from a book and rearrange the lines to create a poem of their own.

Total Time: 180 minutes

Note: Teachers can divide up the 180 minutes as they see fit. Suggested break times are included in the lesson.

Day 1

Introduce Freewriting
Explain that freewriting is a writing strategy developed by Peter Elbow in 1973 and encourages the flow of words and ideas without censorship.
The rules of freewriting:

Don’t:

● Answer specific questions or prompts. Freewriting can center around a very broad topic but should avoid limiting parameters.
● Worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation.
● Stop writing even if you are just repeating the same word or sentence over and over until you come up with an idea.

Do

● Write down anything that comes to mind even if it is completely off topic or seems crazy.
● Write in general sentence and paragraph form. This is not a brainstorming web or bulleted list.
● Write for at least 10-15 minutes.

Note: This is a great tool for English language learners as it helps them focus on producing written language intuitively as opposed to accurately. You may also encourage them to occasionally use words from other languages to help maintain the flow of their work. 

Note: In Peter Elbow’s original approach to freewriting, students write for several minutes, choose one idea or word from that section, and then freewrite on the new topic for a few minutes, repeating this process at least four times.

Model
Ask students to provide a very general topic for you. Then, set a visual timer on the board for three minutes. You can either sit at a desk in the front of the room with pen and paper, or you can write on a whiteboard, SMART Board, projector, etc. The point is to model how this process works. Once you have finished, read your freewriting aloud. Discuss the following questions as a class:

● How does this sound or feel different from other types of writing?
● What are some interesting ideas in here that could potentially be developed?
● If I had more time to write, how might this have turned out differently?

Freewrite
Now that students are familiar with the idea of freewriting, tell them it is their turn. They will freewrite on the topic of “America.” Write or project this word boldly on the board but do not include any colors, pictures, or symbols that might influence their thinking. 

Give everyone a few minutes to stand up, stretch, and move around. When ready, set the timer and prompt them to begin. Again, you should sit at the front of the room and participate in the freewriting to model the process.

Tip: It may be helpful to play some soft ambient music while students write.

Share
Once finished, ask students if they would like to read their freewriting aloud, but do not make this mandatory. Once that is complete, ask the class to quietly reread what they wrote and jot down any topics or big ideas that might be worth developing. Have students shout their topics aloud and write or type them on the board in a word cloud (Graphic A).

Tip: Save or take a picture of your word cloud. It might be helpful to project it again later.

Day 2

Brainstorm
Place students in groups of three and provide a handout, which includes the poems and questions pertaining to this lesson (download these samples at diversityIS.com/poems). Groups should begin by discussing the following questions on the sheet:

● What does it mean to be American?
● How would you describe the typical American?
● What makes America different from other places? 

Read and Reflect
For this lesson, students will read and analyze three poems: “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, and “I, Too, Sing América” by Julia Alvarez. Begin by reading aloud the Whitman poem as a class. Then, students should return to their groups and answer the following questions:

● What makes this poem powerful? What language or poetry devices really stand out?
● What is Whitman trying to show the reader about America?
● What America does he see?
● Is the poem hopeful or not hopeful? How do you know?

Next, read aloud the Hughes’ poem as a class. Again, students should return to their groups to answer the following questions:

● What makes this poem powerful? What language or poetry devices really stand out?
● What is Hughes trying to show the reader about America? What America does he see?
● How is this similar to or different from Whitman’s America?
● Is the poem hopeful or not hopeful? How do you know?

Finally, read aloud the Alvarez poem as a class and answer the following questions:

● What makes this poem powerful? What language or poetry devices really stand out?
● What is Alvarez trying to show the reader about America? What America does she see?
● How is this similar to or different from Whitman’s America? What about Hughes’ America?
● Is the poem hopeful or not hopeful? How do you know?

Tip: It might be helpful to do a short vocabulary lesson prior to reading the poems to ensure students understand all of the words.

Discuss
After you have read all three poems and have given students time to analyze and discuss them in small groups, take time to digest the big ideas as a class. 

Here are some questions that could help encourage an insightful conversation:

● What do all three of these poems have in common? What are they all trying to show about America?

● How do these three poems differ? How does each try to expand the definition of what it means to be American?

● After reading these poems, have they influenced or changed the way you see America?

● How has the definition of America changed over time? Is it still changing? How so?

● How have people in America reacted to these changes?

Prepare
Once your discussion is complete, give each student six strips of paper. On three of the strips, they must write a line from one of the poems to read aloud in class. On the other three strips, they must write an original line of their own about what it means to be American or what America means to them. See Graphic B for an example. 

Tip: You can use different color paper strips to differentiate the teams that will create found poems later.

Day 3

Introduce
Now it is time to introduce the concept of found poetry to the class. Start by asking if anyone knows what a found poem is. If no one knows, ask what they think a found poem might be based on the term “found.” Then, have them watch the video “Creating Found Poems” on the Teaching Channel at Teachingchannel.org/video/creating-found-poems-lesson. After the video is finished, create a definition of found poems as a class and write it on the board. 

Next, break the class into two to three “teams.” Each will work on creating a found poem. Before students move into their teams, provide directions on the process of creating the found poems.  Project the following on the board:

Round 1: Everyone puts one of their quotes in the poem somewhere.
Round 2: Everyone can either: a. Add one quote, b. Move one quote, c. Remove one quote.
Round 3: Everyone can either: a. Add one quote, b. Move one quote, c. Remove one quote.
Round 4: Choose a leader to read the poem aloud to your team.

Create
Students will now work in their groups to create their found poems. The teacher should spend time with each group to help facilitate and support the process. Remind them that the goal is to create a poem that analyzes and helps define what it means to be American, and that the choices made toward that goal are not personal. 

Share and Discuss
Once all of the groups are finished, spend time reading each poem aloud and discussing. Here are some discussion questions that could help encourage an insightful conversation:

● How were the found poems similar or different from the poems we read in class?

● How were the found poems similar or different from each other?

● What does each of the found poems try to say about America? How do they expand the definition?

● Were the found poems hopeful or not hopeful? How do we know?

● What made these poems powerful? What language or poetry devices really stood out? 

Summary
Consider using the free web-based platform Adobe Spark to create a multimedia poetry collection. Students can use the platform to create a short video, image, an animated story, poster, or more for their poems. These can be used to present their work in front of the class, for posting around the classroom, or can be saved for future use. ν

Amber Murphy and Anna Sobotka are contributing writers for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.