Teaching with Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

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.

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reads her work, "An American Lyric," at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reads her work, “In This Place (An American Lyric),” at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Presidential inaugurations are always historic events. This year Amanda Gorman mesmerized us with the reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” in the final moments of the ceremony. As the youngest inaugural poet in history, her reading was no doubt inspirational for many young people who watched or listened to the inauguration. This offers an opportunity for educators to engage a new generation of students with the beauty and power of poetry.

For this activity:

  • Use one of the visual recordings of Gorman’s recitation. Ask students to watch and listen only. (A transcript of the poem, with unofficial line breaks, can be found here.)
  • For a second reading, ask students to only listen, without watching.
  • Ask students how the visuals change the experience of the poem.
  • Provide a copy of the text of the poem for a third experience. Encourage students to watch and listen, or just listen. Guide students to take note of specific words, phrases, or segments of the poem they are drawn to.
  • Place students in small groups to discuss their impressions, thoughts, and feelings about the poem. Ask them to share their preferred way of experiencing the poem. (Survey students anonymously or by a show of hands. It may be useful for later readings to know how students prefer to experience poetry.)
  • Post copies of the poem around the room for students to annotate. If you teach more than one class, encourage students to read and interact with the thoughts of others. In this way, discussion of the poem does not end at the end of class.

Extension activity: In interviews, Gorman has said that in order to prepare to write her poem she read the works of the five previous inauguration poets:

  • Robert Frost, who recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. Frost recited the poem from memory after he was unable to read the text of the poem he’d written for the inauguration, “Dedication,” because of the sun’s glare upon the snow-covered ground.
  • Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning” (textvideo) at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural.
  • Miller Williams, who read “Of History and Hope” (textvideo) at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural.
  • Elizabeth Alexander, who read “Praise Song for the Day” (textvideo) at Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural.
  • Richard Blanco, who read “One Today” (textvideo) at Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural.

Challenge students to read these other poems.

Ask:

  • What do the poems have in common with each other?
  • In what ways was Gorman inspired by her predecessors? What makes you say that?
  • How have the poets made reference to historical and current events?
  • With which of the poems do you most strongly connect? Why?

I also developed a lesson idea for the poems of Frost and Angelou that may also engage your students.

How will you discuss Gorman’s poem with your students?

“Of Headspace and Fire”: An Interview with Terrance Hayes

This interview with Terrance Hayes was conducted in 2013 by Rachel Carstens as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.