“Making Hope and History Rhyme: Words That Will Echo Forevermore” (1 of 4)
This 4 part blog series will be shared over the next several weeks, highlighting three case studies as part of the expedition, “Making Hope and History Rhyme: Words That Will Echo Forevermore,” and finishing with a "Celebration of Learning" segment.
I teach fourth and fifth grade ELA, Social Studies, and Theology at Annunciation Catholic EL School in northeast Denver, CO. Our kids are Latino/a (predominantly immigrant families from Mexico), South Sudanese, Black, and multiethnic. For many of the children in my class, English is their second language.We are a Title I school, and most of our families rely on scholarships and financial aid to cover their tuition. We begin each morning reading our mission statement. We are an urban community “ committed to serve, committed to learn, and committed to live these with integrity as Jesus did.” (Annunciation Catholic School Mission Statement)
Our mission statement, especially in the last couple years through the pandemic, has been the anchor for the work we do.
The title of our expedition, “Making Hope and History Rhyme: Words That Will Echo Forevermore,” was voted on by the kids, to encompass what we’re going for: To build a community of hope, “on the far side of revenge,” and to make our voices cry out “forevermore”… These lines were taken from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure of Troy and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride.
In the EL Education curriculum, a learning expedition is an “in-depth study that offers real-world connections that inspire students toward higher levels of academic achievement. Learning expeditions involve students in original research, critical thinking, and problem solving, and they build character along with academic skills.” (EL Education Expedition)
Our twelve week expedition explores the history of the United States through poetry and the spoken word. Poetry, speeches, and stories make us: think, feel, and act. We focused on poems and speeches that speak for the voiceless, the marginalized, and the “left out” of the “American Dream.” Our primary focus was on the multifaceted Black experience in America, as told through poetry, poets, and speeches. We began with the American Revolution. From there, we explored the voices and lives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. Next, we studied the poetry of Emma Lazarus, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. Lastly, we studied the commitment to radical compassion and peace in the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Father Daniel Berrigan. On the last leg of our journey, we explored Nelson Mandela and Amanda Gorman. These experiences, stories, and poets intertwine and share a deep connection with each other, and the “promise of America.” Our unit was organized into case studies and for each case study, we focused on: the content of the poem/story/person/speech (What did they teach us? What can we learn? What can we do? ), the elements of poetry conveyed (What makes this a poem?), why did this person write/say this?, and what makes this person a moving speaker? (What does a good speaker do?) Ultimately, this led us towards writing our own poems and delivering them, based on: content, elements of poetry, inspiration, and delivery.
Below are the collective set of questions we returned to through each case study, and kept our study focused and concise, heading towards a particular end goal. We would begin and end lessons with these questions:
- What is poetry?
- What inspires poets to write poetry?
- How do poems make us feel, think, and act?
- Is America true to what it said on paper?
- Who does the Constitution protect?
- Who does the Constitution leave out? Why?
- How do our words have power?
- Who are the women and men who spoke for the voiceless?
- How can we use our words to create a better world?
- How can we include everyone? What can WE do with our voice to include the ones who are oppressed?
The final product of our expedition was to both write, and deliver poems based on what inspired us from what we learned and intertwine that into what inspires us from our own lives and experiences. Throughout our expedition, we kept the focus on poetry and the spoken word to keep us moving toward our goal succinctly and intentionally.
Case Study #1: Power of Words in the American Revolution
Our first case study was about the American Revolution: Paul Revere’s Ride, Phillis Wheatley, The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Our introduction to poetry paired with our introduction to the Revolution. Through this study, we learned about the power of words, action, resilience, courage, and commitment to a cause we believe in. We learned how Phillis Wheatley, and many other women and men of color were left out of the Declaration’s creed that “all men are created equal.” During this case study, we watched Liberty’s Kids episodes that conveyed Black experience during and directly after The Revolution.
Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In reading Paul Revere’s Ride, we learned about the beginning of the American Revolution and the first battles in Lexington and Concord. We read of his courage to ride in secrecy through the night to warn his fellow Patriots that the British were marching towards Concord! We also explored the features and characteristics of poetry that made Longfellow’s poem so inspiring. This was our introduction into: alliteration, metaphors, repetition, stanzas, etc, essentially, our introduction into “what makes a poem a poem?”
We chose this poem to kickstart our expedition for a couple reasons. One, it was my favorite poem growing up so it's something I get to share with my children, a passion. In studying this poem, I can share with them pictures of myself in first grade visiting famed Old North Church with my older sister and grandma. This poem bridges my experience growing up in Massachusetts, a sacred place I am away from, to my kids and their experience growing up in Denver.
Next, this poem is the ultimate model of poetry: storytelling, imagery, rhyme. Early and often with poetry, I want to get the kids in front of and work with high models of poems such as this. This poem is particularly important to our study because it promotes action and courage: A man, with the help of a friend, in the face of a foe, riding through the night, because he wants to warn his friends to up and to arms, to take action against the injustice of the British empire. Kickstart the unit with these poems because it promotes precisely what I’m hoping for with our kids: Get up and GO!
Lastly, this poem is key to our expedition because it is the ideal transition to our next case study, and there is a clear cut answer of “what inspires poets to write?” On the eve of the Civil War, Longfellow wrote this poem to urge Northmen to join the cause of the Abolitionists. What will inspire the people to get up and go? The last stanza of the poem make its clear what the goal is here: Not to tell the story of Paul Revere, but to be like Paul Revere, a man whose message will “echo forevermore,” as a “voice in the darkness” “a cry of defiance and not of fear.” Do something memorable, do something right. Longfellow cries out if you join the abolitionist cause, and act with courage and defiance, history has a way of remembering your legacy.
This poem led us through the Revolution, and grounded us in the foundation of the United States, and guided us on where to go next. Additionally, after reading this poem, we were able to build on our foundation and understanding of the elements and characteristics of poetry.
Important Writings of the Revolution: Was it a Success? Who was left out?
After reading Paul Revere’s Ride, we focused on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We read that “all men are created equal.” We read that the purpose of the government is to protect the people, so that they have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And then we asked the question, did the government protect the rights of all people? And, did the government show that all men are created equal? The answer is: NO! So, it was “An Incomplete Revolution.” We didn’t spend too much time on the Revolution, but wanted to make sure to set our focus straight: The Declaration states God given liberties and announces a new country. Eventually the Revolution was won, and the Constitution was created as a new form of government, with the goal of being what the people fought for: a new form of government, for and by the people.
Focusing on and honoring the plethora of rich and diverse experiences of Blacks across the history of America, we learned about Phillis Wheatley: We read a book about her, watched Liberty’s Kids episodes about her, and read three of her poems. As stated above, I wanted to continuously intertwine our themes and build connections on what we were learning and where we were going. So, with Phillis Wheatley, we read her poem about George Washington: His Excellency General Washington, and compared that to Women of Color reading poems at the inauguration (Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Amanda Gorman) (more on this in Blog Post #4) She is the beginning of an incredible list of women speaking at the pinnacle event of what America ought to be. Next, we compared and connected two of her poems to quotes/speeches from Martin Luther King. “On Virtue” has a similar theme to MLK’s philosophy on education: True education, true wisdom, is developing character and brains: “To be smart, you need a big heart,” said a student, in reference to the quote “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education.”
Next, “on Being Brought from Africa to America” connects to MLK’s message that “Black is beautiful” no matter what people say, just as Wheatley says Black is an angelic race, no matter what people say (that Black is black as Cain.) This then led us to answering, discussing, asking the guiding question: Who was left out? What then happened? Was it(The Revolution, the new form of government, a success?
As this was the beginning of our unit, and with Wheatley’s poetry being quite complex, the focus here was more so on the woman that she was more so than her poetry. I wanted to make it quite clear to our community, especially our young girls of color, that we honor the work of women of color throughout history, and that they, too, can have a message that 300 years later, is still alive. Who writes poetry, in the beginning, was just as important as what poetry is.
Book #2: Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson
As we learned about the Revolution and the ultimate outcome of the Revolution (a newer, better form of government and The Constitution), we also began reading these two books, to give credit to invisible stories in America, like the fact that the inspiration for the Constitution came from the Iroquois Confederacy. Personally, this was important to me because I grew up playing, and I now coach lacrosse with Denver City Lax. Authenticity is a key component of teaching, so it meant a lot to give credit to the Iroquois Confederacy, while also sharing the game of lacrosse with the kids. You could say without the Iroquois and lacrosse, I would not be teaching and coaching.
Furthermore, on the theme of authenticity, The Band is one of my favorite bands. This book was written by Robbie Robertson, so, while reading this book, you could find our class both playing lacrosse and rocking out to The Weight by The Band.
We read Hiawatha and The Peacemaker while we learned about the Revolution. Why? Because our government’s Constitution got most of its ideas from the Five Nations, The Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois Confederacy and its leaders embody peace, unity, patience, listening and wisdom. This story should be told so all people in the U.S. know where our first leaders got their ideas from! Members of the Christian community should listen to this story because Jesus proclaims “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” and the Iroquois Nation lives out this creed very well: Blessed are they, the peacemakers.
Book #3: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac
This story opens up the world into the Iroquois way of life, pre Euro-colonization. How their government worked, how leaders discussed, listened, reflected, voted and kept peace as and for the collective. We learned how Clan Mothers and Faith Keepers led with love and wisdom. Fast Forward to the United States needing a new government after the Revolution: The leadership of Clan Mothers and Faith Keepers is what inspired them.
We read this book aloud together to begin and end each day, and provide a lot of opportunity for discussion, reflection, and connection to our work.
Both of these stories embody the beauty of the Iroquoius culture, and shed light on where our own country’s inspiration came from. Furthermore, in both of these stories, we see the value and effectiveness of a well delivered speech, which was a key component to our overarching expedition.