Social Education 58(4) 1994, pp. 238-239
National Council for the Social Studies

Reflecting on American History
Through Poetry

Pat Carney-Dalton
Mark broke the silence, "Is this true? I didn't think people were allowed to do that to each other." The fifth-grade students stared in disbelief after reading an account of a slave and the misery he had suffered. Living in an era when individual rights are protected, they find it difficult to fathom a time in our history when a man would own another man, like a person would own a farm animal. Andre, wondering what to do with this disturbing information, started sketching out ideas.
As a teacher of American History, I want my students to be involved in their learning. They participate in simulations so they can experience the climate and the decisions of the times. They conduct research studies which might turn into a report, filmstrip, play, slide show, or historical fiction. But there are many troubling times in our history that are hard to explain in today's context. As students learn about slavery, forced Indian relocations, and child labor, they realize that "All men are created equaquot; did not apply to all people. I want my students to be able to deal with these contradictions in a personal way, so I invite them to write poetry when they feel troubled by something they have learned.

The next day Andre shyly handed me a poem titled "Slavery." I was not surprised at its power; Andre is a talented writer. As I read his poem, I commented on the strong parts, and asked him what needed to be done to bring it to completion. After we discussed the contents, he sat down to revise. Later he shared his poem with the class.

by Andre Nyce

I'm sitting here
waiting for my white playmate to come.
I don't like him at all.
I've learned not to defend myself
from a snake like object
snapping on my back.
We play boring games
always the games he wants.
I call him Billy
he calls me nigger.
Sometimes when I'm ready for bed
my father tells me stories
about how we traveled here
and how lucky I am
to be with my family.
My Dad said soon
he will buy himself out of slavery
and me too
to a world
where my friends call me Tommy
and we play
the games we both like.

The Process
In "Slavery," Andre visualized a scene and put himself into it. He imagined himself in a place he could best understand-playing with a friend. If children can snatch a moment in time, as Andre did, the images come easily and their poems do not seem contrived. In order for students to feel comfortable writing free verse, however, they have to be exposed to many different styles of poetry. I read to them often and teach them what I consider to be the three power-brokers of a poem: Image, Comparison, and Line Break.

Image. The use of imagery is important because the children show, through vivid pictures, what they are thinking and learning. Andre originally ended his poem with the statement, "I don't like being a slave." During our writing conference I complimented him on the clear picture he had created for his readers, and told him that his descriptions brought out that he did not like being a slave. I suggested he end the poem with an image. He changed his ending to "where my friends call me Tommy and we play the games we both like."

Comparison. Poets use comparisons to strengthen images. Andre compared a whip to "a snake like object" in order to create a strong picture in his reader's mind.

Line Breaks. Poets use line breaks to control the cadence of the poem. If the lines are long, it is read faster. If the lines are short, the poet wants the poem to be read slowly. The children find the rhythm of the poem by reading it aloud and experimenting with the line breaks.

Forced Relocation
During a unit on the Westward Movement, the children participated in the Interact Simulation Oregon Trail. They experienced the hardships and successes of a pioneer striving for a new life. After they have fully identified with the new settlers, I involved them in another Interact Simulation, Collision, in which they take on the identity of American Indians who were being forced off their land treaty by treaty. Each time the Indians agreed to give up land so no more would be taken, the treaty would be broken. At the end of the simulation, one student complained, "We couldn't win, the white man's government kept lying to us." Several students wrote poems to express their frustration with the injustices suffered by the American Indians.

An Indian Cry
by Andre Nyce

White people are all the same
attack us, kill us
force us off our land.
Why do they do it,
I ask everyone?
The land is so beautiful.
We the Indians
worship our mother Earth.
She shelters us in her trees
comforts us on cool green grass.
Our father the sun
warms us, soothes us in his beaming rays.
Our sisters the birds
cheer us and sing their beautiful song.
Our brother the squirrel
runs around playfully and makes us laugh.
How can the white man destroy our land
and chop down hundreds of trees
to make houses.
What do they give us?
They give us drink that kills us.
I can only dream
of the perfect, peaceful land
where we can bathe ourselves
and drink from the creek and feel
the coolness of the North Wind.

"The Push" reflects Robbie's dismay over forced relocation.

The Push
by Robbie Fisher

White skinned man
taking the trees,
the ground, the animals,
our fathers and mothers,
our past, our culture.
Our home
now a white settlement.
Breaking treaties
they push us
to barren reservation.
The Push is over
we can no longer fight.
We have no chance,
everything of our past is gone.

Child Labor
The study of immigration enabled the students to understand the richness of America's cultural diversity. They participated in Interact's Gateway simulation, saw films, and read firsthand accounts of people who came to America to find opportunity and freedom. But along with identifying the benefits, the students also studied the hardships and disappointments. They saw broken promises, prejudice towards newcomers, and harsh living and working conditions. They also learned of a time when the economic growth of this nation came from the labors of children.

The children wrote poems from photographs taken from this period in history. Purchased from Documentary Photo Aids, the photographs show very young children working in factories under dirty and dangerous conditions. After studying a picture of a young boy working the ovens in a glass factory, Mark wrote the following poem.

by Mark Breon

Working in the glass factory
next to these furnaces
is like sitting on the sun.
It's hot
so hot.
Someone gets burnt
almost everyday.
Soon it will be me.
But I cannot stop
or my family will die.

Asa studied an anti-child labor poster that showed a huge hand labeled "Child Labor Employer" coming down on a group of skinny, ragged children. From this picture he wrote his poem "Boss."

by Asa Hegel

Hearing my bones crack like eggs.
The sun
I see the sun.
It's Boss's diamond ring
Shining like a million mirrors.
Eating donuts, growing fatter
I feel the weight
Smothering me.
Wearing fur
Ruling people
Only stops
When it's time to go home.

The Advantages of Poetry
For children to learn the lessons of history, they must be personally involved in it. The use of simulations, historical documents, and literature helps to make children keenly aware of the conflicts that occurred.

The writing of poetry naturally complements the study of historical injustices. It has long been artists, musicians, writers, and poets who have been able to look at the world and expose its wrongs, with the hope that once recognized, solutions could be found and problems rectified. In training my fifth graders to see society through a poet's eyes, I hope to encourage them to look at issues critically and with insight. I hope to encourage my young students to become involved for the good of society.

Child Labor. Documentary Photo Aids, Inc. Post Office Box 956, Mount Dora, Florida 32757.
Collision. Interact Simulations, Post Office Box 997-Y91, Lakeside, California 92040.
Gateway. Interact Simulations, Post Office Box 997-Y91, Lakeside, California 92040.
Pioneers. Interact Simulations, Post Office Box 997-Y91, Lakeside, California 92040.

Books on Teaching the Writing of Poetry
Grossman, Florence. Getting from Here to There: Writing and Reading Poetry. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Books, 1982.
-----. Listening to the Bells: Learning to Read Poetry by Writing Poetry. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Books, 1991.
Heard, Georgia. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Books, 1989.

Pat Carney-Dalton teaches in the Souderton Area School District, Souderton, Pennsylvania, and is a teacher-consultant in the Pennsylvania Writing Project, West Chester University. The children who wrote the poems are students in the Quakertown Community School District.