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Exploring Historical and Current Social Issues through Poetry

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

In our up-to-the-minute society, we receive news almost as soon as it happens. For this reason students who engage with social media often have interest in social issues of the day. This interest can foster a connection with poetry written to address social issues.

"Hymn for the Working Children" by Fanny J. Crosby
“Hymn for the Working Children” by Fanny J. Crosby

Begin an exploration of poems that address social issues by reading “Hymn for the Working Children” by Fanny J. Crosby. Provide students with information about the time in our history when child labor was common or ask them to investigate the historical context on their own.

After they have read and spent some time thinking about or discussing the poem with a partner, ask:

  • What can you tell about how the author feels about the issue he or she addresses? What makes you say that?
  • What do you notice about the language the poet uses to convey his or her message about the social issue?
  • What poetic devices has the poet used? Discuss why the device may have been chosen in each case. Does it help to convey the meaning? Help set the tone? Enhance the emotion of the poem? Or something else?

Next, provide one or more additional poems for students to delve into such as:

After reading and discussing poems related to historical social issues, ask students to connect the activity to the present by finding poems about current issues of interest. These will often take the form of songs. It has been my preference to accept song lyrics as a form of poetry.

Also offer students an opportunity to write their own poem or lyrics addressing an issue about which they feel strongly. Ask them to share their work with the class or post poems in the classroom.

What poems addressing social issues do you share with students?