Using Poetry to Understand History

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Students will be able to analyze how authors use or alter history by comparing nonfiction account and a poetic portrayal of an historical event.

Big Idea

When poetry and nonfiction meet, we better understand historical events.

Daily Grammar

15 minutes


Bob Dylan's Interpretation of the Emmett Till Story

30 minutes

I gave students copies of the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "The Death of Emmett Till."  An interesting tidbit is that this song was never released on any of his records.  There are bootleg performances, radio performances, but not an official recording, at least that I know of, unless you count this official album of bootlegs from Bob Dylan's website.  I think my brain just exploded. Official bootleg album.

I asked students to read the song first, and then I played the song.  After reading and listening, I asked students to record their thoughts, questions, etc. in the form of a quickwrite.

Once they'd written and shared their quickwrite with the people at their table, we brought out the Venn diagrams from the day before.  Ha ha! You thought we were done with those, didn't you? Nope.  We're adding onto them to see how Bob Dylan used history in his own account of what happened to Emmett Till.

They worked with the same clock appointments as yesterday, so they had their same Venn diagram.  If a student was absent either day, I made changes so a student wasn't working alone.

Since the three circles for the Venn diagram didn't take up the whole sheet, we were adding a column to show what facts Bob Dylan used in his interpretation and what he added that the other sources didn't. I gave students about ten minutes before pulling them back together to discuss.

What We Discovered

  • As a writer of poetry, Bob Dylan pretty much stuck to the facts.
  • As a writer of poetry, he made the facts personal. 
  • As a writer of poetry, he used specific word choices to make the reader feel the tragic, gruesome event.
  • The nonfiction writers still described the event in tragic and gruesome ways, but it was different.  They weren't as emotional as Bob Dylan was.

What We Know for Sure: A Timeline of Events

30 minutes

It was now the students' turn to take everything they'd learned about Emmett Till from the three nonfiction articles and even Bob Dylan and create a paragraph explaining what happened to Emmett Till.  We did this in small increments so I could show students how research, note taking, drafting, revising, drafting, and editing all combine to create a final draft.

We started with a way of taking notes--creating a timeline.  I showed students two different methods of creating a timeline, as seen in the picture to the left.  I honestly didn't care which way they did it. I just wanted them to know they had options.

In addition to writing the dates and events, I directed students to write the number of the source.  We'd already numbered the sources, since they didn't have drastically different titles, and I was getting confused.  Source #1 was the two page article, Source #2 was the three page article, Source #3 was the two page article from the book, and Source #4 was the Bob Dylan ballad.

 If you'd rather have control over what kind of a timeline your students do, and when I do this with my co-taught classes, there will be one kind of timeline, oh yes there will.   Here's a Google search for timelines specifically for history.

Lesson Resources

Check out this Google search for timelines that can be used for history.

Today's lesson picture shows Bob Dylan and Emmett Till.