The Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus”

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series is by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

In 1903, 18 years after the Statue of Liberty arrivedStatue of Lib in New York, the poem “The New Colossus” was inscribed on a plaque that today is displayed in the Statue of Liberty Exhibit in the Statue’s pedestal. Emma Lazarus wrote the poem, a sonnet, in 1883 as a contribution to a fundraiser for the Statue’s pedestal.

The poem is engaging for the attitude it offers about immigrants and immigration at a time in American history when the topic was as controversial as it is today. Reading the poem and exploring resources related to attitudes about immigration may be a way to begin conversations about current immigration legislation debates.
I have discovered while working with teachers and students at the Library how powerful it can be to pair literature with primary source analysis as a way to engage students beyond the text. This also might be an opportunity to team a language arts teacher with a social studies teacher to explore the topic from both literary and social perspectives.

Begin by reading the poem aloud or listening to this recording by poet Alicia Ostriker. Listening to the poem helps students develop auditory skills. Ask pairs to discuss the poem, noting details that indicate the poem’s tone or attitude toward immigration. After students have time to discuss and share with the class, consider listening to the commentary that follows the poem in Ostriker’s recording.

Ask students:

  • What does Ostriker’s commentary add to our understanding of the poem?
  • Do you agree or disagree with her commentary? Why?

To deepen the conversation about late 19th century attitudes toward immigration and immigrants, offer this political cartoon from the Library’s digitized collections.

Cartoon Line

Ask students how the message of the cartoon does or does not align with that of the poem. What details from the cartoon support this answer?

Next offer this political cartoon:

Cartoon Fight

Again ask how the cartoon’s message aligns or disagrees with that of the poem. Prompt students to provide specific details from the poem to support their answer. Pairing the visual items with the poem allows students to practice reading images and looking for specific details.

Through this experience, students have engaged in listening, reading, and viewing as multiple avenues for accessing and interacting with poetry. One way to also include writing is to invite each student to compose a poem reflecting the message of one of the cartoons. Host a reading of these original works.

How do you connect poetry to its historical context?

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