Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

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After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

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“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

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Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.

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Introducing Poetry to Students by Pairing Kerry Hasler-Brooks’ “Read, Reread, Close Read” with Aracelis Girmay

I have often struggled with how to best introduce poetry to students. Since I have primarily taught Literature and Composition courses at community colleges, poetry is often completely unfamiliar, and usually a bit intimidating, to my students. After turning to The Pocket Instructor for inspiration, I quickly found Kerry Hasler-Brooks’ classroom exercise “Read, Reread, Close Read” to be the perfect foundation for a new in-class activity that I can use to begin my poetry unit. Hasler-Brooks argues that “A commitment to oral reading…trains students to use their ears, rather than just their eyes, to become more accomplished close readers.” By introducing students to the process of oral reading that Hasler-Brooks outlines, this lesson teaches several strategies that will help students feel more confident when critically thinking about a poem for the first time.

I plan on pairing my adaptation of Hasler-Brooks’ exercise with contemporary poet Aracelis Girmay’s “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card.” While any poem can be used with this lesson, I selected Girmay’s work, which appears in her collection Teeth, because it is a narrative poem that contains clear imagery, plays with sound, and questions language. While this exercise is designed specifically for students who may be studying poetry for the first time, it could be further altered to suit the needs of students taking a higher-level English course.

Read

First Read

Before class, I will highlight part of the poem on each handout; these assigned lines will then be what each student will read out loud. It is important, as Hasler-Brooks states, for everyone, including me as the instructor, to read at least one line during this activity. At the beginning of class, we will take turns reading the poem out loud. This reading will be the first time that students see and hear this poem.

Next, I will use guided free-writing so that students can write down their initial reactions to the piece. They will respond to the following questions:

  • What lines stood out to you while hearing the poem?
  • How did reading out loud affect the way that you understood the poem?
  • What are your general reactions to the poem?
  • What do you think the poem is about?

RereadSecond Read

After completing this guided free-write, I will ask students to prepare for a second reading of the poem. Before this reading, I will, as Hasler-Brooks recommends, “ask each student to return to the [part of the poem] that he or she read aloud…and annotate a new, planned oral reading…consider[ing] these questions: How will you read a line, and where will your emphasis fall?” Then, the class will read the poem out loud again.

While Hasler-Brooks uses these multiple readings to show that rereading the same text out loud can lead to discovering new interpretations of its content, I want to use this repetition as a way to guide students through understanding different aspects of the poem. While students reflect upon their initial reactions after the first reading, the writing exercise that follows the second reading will focus on helping students to understand the poem’s literal meaning. I will ask each student to write a brief (two or three sentence) summary that describes the poem’s narrative plot. As a class, we will then create one summary together, so that everyone has a clear understanding of the poem’s literal content before they hear it read out loud one final time.

Close Read

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Aracelis Girmay, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Instead of having students craft a third oral reading, as Hasler-Brooks does, I plan on playing a clip of Girmay reading her poem at Quinnipiac University’s “Yawp! An Open Dialogue on Creativity and the Arts” from Youtube. Her reading of “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card” begins about twenty-four minutes into the video. While listening to Girmay read, I will ask students to take notes on the sounds that she emphasizes and how, if at all, her reading changes their impressions of the poem.

After hearing Girmay’s reading, we will end this activity with a class discussion, in which we begin interpreting the poem’s content. I plan on asking the following questions:

  • Why does Girmay include these different combinations of the words “love is for everybody” at the end of the poem?
  • How does hearing these words in a different order affect their meaning?
  • What are the larger themes that Girmay wants readers to consider?
  • What does this poem say about language, interpretation, and understanding?
  • Why end with the message “love is for everybody”?
  • How did reading the poem out loud and hearing the poem multiple times affect your understanding of the poem?

During this final part of the lesson, I want to discuss not only how to develop an interpretation of the poem’s content, but also how to use the different strategies from this exercise in the future. By emphasizing the importance of oral reading and rereading, I hope that my students will leave the classroom with a blueprint for how to think critically about poetry, so that they will feel more confident when analyzing other poems on their own.