A Revolution in Poetry: Phillis Wheatley's Verse

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SWBAT analyze the impact of diction on tone and meaning through collaboratively paraphrasing poetry.

Big Idea

Symbols that stand for America: The Stars and Stripes, Eagles, Apple Pie, Uncle Sam...The Goddess Columbia?

Intro & Welcome: It's The "Birthday" of the Gateway Arch!

10 minutes

I greet students at the door with today's handout on Phillis Wheatley. After the bell, I welcome students to the "Birthday" of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and speak a few minutes about the role of Thomas Jefferson, whom we have been studying, in opening the West. I also ask the students who has been to the Arch what they thought about it. 

Students' Monday Mindbender worksheets are on their desks, and we move on to a word puzzle for the day. Today's is "seasonally appropriate," as the puzzle asks students to decode the word "WITCH" from the poem presented. (Mindbenders are copyright Mensa, and as such not reprinted here). The last line of the poem mentions the subject gathering in a "band," but I note the actual collective noun for witches. We review a few collective nouns to refresh the concept. 

After a few weeks of inconsistent schedules, holidays, absences, and the like, the Daily Holidays and Monday Mindbenders provide a sense of continuity for the students on top of the sense of community they build.  


Distinctly American Symbolism: A Brainstorm

5 minutes

I ask students to "shout out" what symbols (specific, tangible things) they associate with America. I'll list these on the board, and connect Uncle Sam to personification of the nation. If students do not identify Uncle Sam, I'll give them that one. In order to set up the impact of Wheatley's diction (RL.9-10.4) before even reading the poem, I'll connect Uncle Sam and The Statue of Liberty to the personification of Columbia used by Wheatley in her poem by taking brainstorm notes on the board. 

Phillis Wheatley: Biography and Poetry

45 minutes

The reading I handed students at the beginning of class features a brief biographical sketch of Phillis Wheatley and a copy of her poem, "To His Excellency, General Washington," as well as a textbook-provided worksheet on paraphrasing/clarifying meaning and personification*. Students read the biographical sketch I provide of Phillis Wheatley, to get a feel for the impact she had on George Washington. I read or play a recording of Wheatley's poem, and students divide into small groups to paraphrase a portion of the poem. I chose for students to work together on this, because the wording Wheatley uses is archaic, and students can support each other in determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings (RL.9-10.4). As students discuss and paraphrase (please skip to 15 seconds in the video, the first--very good--student question was drowned out by the tapping he was doing on the desk), I circulate the room providing clarification, as needed. The handout also includes the definitions of some of the "trickier" words. I collect the paraphrases (Example 1Example 2) at the end of the work session, and tonight will type them up as a parallel text with the original, so that tomorrow we can analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone. 

*The information in these worksheets will be covered in the paraphrasing activity, as such they are not included here. Absent students will have this as a supplemental/replacement/make-up activity. 

Two Minute Warning: Wrap Up & Homework

5 minutes

Today's "Two Minute Warning" actually begins a bit earlier, so I could ask students to get the room put back together and review what was expected for the homework. As students paraphrased their lines, I handed them a copy of Wheatley's "Upon Being Brought From Africa To America," including questions analyzing Wheatley's word choice (e.g. the pun in "diabolic die", the implication of focus on "whiteness" and "blackness" in the poem, personal reactions to her word choice: RL.9-10.4). I also collect the groups' paraphrases of lines, so that I can prepare their work for tomorrow's comparison.