Throughout Black History Month in February, Ahfachkee fifth graders studied a multitude of Black history topics including poetry.
The students studied poems by Amanda Gorman and Maya Angelou that the poets recited at presidential inaugurations; Gorman spoke at Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s in January; Angelou at William J. Clinton’s in 1993.
Teacher Kathy Wills’ class analyzed Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” learned about Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” and analyzed another Angelou poem, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.”
“I try to incorporate current events as much as I can in my teaching,” Wills said. “They weren’t familiar with Maya Angelou. I always use her because I think she is amazing and her poetry ties into Black history. I was blown away when I heard Amanda Gorman’s poem and the way she presented it. It seemed a natural thing to bring that into the classroom.”
The class had already learned about the election and inauguration, so Wills had them watch Gorman recite her poem more than once. The students had a copy of the poem to follow along as they watched the video. Afterwards, they took turns reading it.
“It was a very teachable moment to me,” Wills said. “We talked about the metaphors and figurative language used in the poem. I asked them to think about the message in the poem.”
Students completed their answers to the meaning of the message and why they believe Gorman chose to write and recite it at the inauguration. They selected phrases from the poem that were meaningful to them. Here are some of their answers:
Terrance Robbins’ wrote about what the word ‘hill’ meant in the title of the poem.
“I think the word ‘hill’ in the poem, ‘the hill we climb,’ can be a challenge in life like say if you want to achieve a goal that you can work hard and you can achieve those goals. They are using the word ‘hill’ as a metaphor.”
Terrance added: “The reason I think she chose to write and recite the poem for the inauguration is she wanted to teach the people around the world about life and challenges in life and how to face them.”
When asked to pick lines from the poem that he found meaningful, Terrance selected: “We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be. A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”
Terrance wrote that he chose those lines because “they mean that this country may be hurt but we will keep fighting no matter what.”
Brysen Billie’s response to what hill means focused on overcoming challenges. “For example, this year there have been many hard challenges such as Covid-19 and [the] loss of many role models’ names [including] Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman and Alex Trebek, but we overcame these challenges and united as a nation.”
Why did Brysen think Gorman chose to write and recite this poem for the Inauguration?
Brysen wrote: “She wants us to all be kind to each other, respect each other, treat each other fairly and we must learn from the poem and not judge but compliment others. Don`t be disrespectful, be respectful and treat others how you want to be treated.”
Zayden Cypress chose the line “When day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid” and explained his choice. “When I read this line it means to me that we stand up to people.”
Wills introduced Gorman’s poem and talked about her being named the first youth poet laureate and what it meant to be just 22 years old with an upbringing in which the odds were stacked against her.
“I want them to see younger role models and say that could be me,” Wills said. “Anything is possible with commitment and dedication. Gorman had a speech impediment and worked to overcome it. She practiced and rehearsed and didn’t let it get her down.”
The class also studied Angelou’s life and poems. They watched the poet read her inaugural poem long before any of them were born. They also analyzed the more age-appropriate poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” During the process, students learned to discern who the speaker is, the rhyme scheme and the imagery of the poem.
Students used worksheets to answer questions about Angelou’s life. Terrance wrote about the poet’s struggles.
“Her struggles in life was her parents split and she was sent to live with her dad’s mom. She suffered first-hand racial discrimination and she became mute. Her writing themes are confidence, strength, human spirit and beauty,” Terrance wrote.
Another student, Annaleise, wrote that Angelou was not afraid at all and told other people not to be afraid. She had a tough childhood, but when she grew up she wrote “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.” Annaleise wrote that the poet was not afraid of life any more.
“Virtual class is quite different, so I create Google slides for them and screen sharing,” Wills explained. “I think they are thinking about things they may not have thought about before. I like to use different sources and find things that are current and relevant.”
It often takes students two or three times as long to learn something during distance learning, Wills said. She is careful not to overwhelm them and avoids making school work seem unmanageable.
“I keep trying to motivate them and encourage them,” she said. “This is really about their thoughts, it isn’t citing information and calculations. I try to have them not second guess themselves, but to get them to believe in themselves. I want them to feel free to express themselves.”