Teacher’s Corner: Unexpected Poets

From the Catbird Seat is excited to launch a new monthly series, “Teacher’s Corner,” by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. “Teacher’s Corner” will highlight ways that K-12 teachers and librarians can effectively use poetry- and literature-related primary sources from the Library in the classroom.

Bringing primary sources into the poetry and literature classroom and library is one way to foster student engagement, develop critical thinking skills, and build content knowledge. My goal in this blog series is to offer teaching suggestions connected to specific writers and their work using rich materials from the Library’s collections.

Not everyone who writes poetry calls themselves a poet. Sometimes people who are well known for a vastly different area of expertise–such as politics, activism, or science–write poetry for pleasure. Students may be surprised by these poems from historical figures.

Consider the poem “My Childhood-Home I See Again,” written by Abraham Lincoln in 1846 when he was 37 years old and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Offer students the original in Lincoln’s handwriting, but access the transcription to analyze the content of the poem.

Abraham Lincoln, "My Childhood-Home I See Again" (1846), p. 2. From the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln, “My Childhood-Home I See Again” (1846), p. 2. From the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

Ask:

  • What can we learn about Lincoln from the poem?
  • Does the poem reveal anything surprising about Lincoln?
  • Can the content of the poem be connected to events in Lincoln’s life?

Helen Keller is most famous for overcoming blindness, deafness, and the inability to speak to become a political activist and lecturer, but she was also a prolific writer. Offer the poem “Autumn” without revealing its author. Ask students to focus in particular on the poem’s visual imagery. Suggest investigating Keller’s connection to Alexander Graham Bell as an entry point to find out more about her work and activism.

Helen Keller, “Autumn,” 1893. From the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers.

Ask:

  • What can we learn about Keller from the poem?
  • How could a woman, who could not see after she was 19 months old, have written so eloquently about the beauties of nature?
  • Consider that Keller wrote this when she was only 13 years old. What may have prompted her to write the poem to Alexander Graham Bell?

Next consider the poem “The Blackbird,” written by Alexander Graham Bell when he was 14 years old.

Alexander Graham Bell, “The Blackbird” (1861). From the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers.

Ask:

  • What can we learn about Bell from the poem?
  • How does Bell’s imagery differ from Keller’s?
  • Why might Bell have preserved poems written in childhood?

Ask students to speculate about what may have inspired these amateur poets to write, and then look for, poetic inspiration in their own experiences.

Additional Resources:

One Comment

  1. Shirl McPhillips
    November 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    A marvelous idea. Poems as a medium for the deepest expression, no matter one’s vocation in life. To see poems as arising out of lived lives.

    I hope the students would get a chance to read/reread the poems and have conversation about them in their own words, to say to each other what they feel, what they notice, what they understand before being “asked” the teachers’ questions.

    I’m always afraid students will feel they have to wait for someone else’s questions (the “important” ones) when we really want them to feel they have their own responses, that those responses are legitimate and “important.”

    Thanks for this most provocative way to engage with poems. So many lessons here.

    Shirley McPhillips
    Author of Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers
    A Note Slipped Under the Door: Teaching from Poems We Love (with Nick Flynn)

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