Let me begin by saying that I love, love, love this poem! Something about the idea of life being tough, but we keep climbing gets me every time! Now, if only I can convince my students to love, or at least appreciate this poem!
I will start off by giving them a tiny bit of background info on the Harlem Renaissance to set the stage for the time period when Langston Hughes wrote this poem.
Then, I'll read the poem aloud to my students. I just want them to hear/read it the first time, so I will just ask them to listen.
Usually, a couple of kids already totally "get" the meaning of the poem after one reading, but the majority will just look at you will that confused, blank stare.
It's time to jump into a close reading.
First, I'll ask students to picture the crystal stair that the narrator refers to in the second line of the poem. I'll ask them what pops into their minds when they hear this term. I anticipate that they will answer with, "clear, smooth, perfect, fancy, rich, and like Elsa's frozen palace in the movie "Frozen." (They are obsessed!)
The narrator says that life is NOT like a crystal stair, and then goes in to describing what the stair is like. I will now have students circle any words that describe the stair. Answers will include "had tacks, splinters, boards torn up, bare, places with no carpet."
I'll now ask then to talk with their should partners about why the narrator uses these words to describe the stair. I just want to regroup and make sure that we are all on the right track here before we move on. It is important that the students understand that she is describing the stairs as harsh and full of trouble.
Next I'll ask the students to circle anything that the narrator says that she's been doing. For example, "I'se been a-climbin' on."
Now, I'll ask the students to underline any advice that the narrator gives to her son.
Finally, I'll have the students highlight any words that are "non standard" English.
Now that my students have collected some data, I'm going to have them analyze a couple of things.
First, I will have them look at the things that the mother says she has been doing, plus the advice she gives her son, and decide what probably happened write before the poem. In other words, what caused this mom to tell her son all of this? I want the students to speculate on the back story. I'll ask them to discuss this with their table groups.
My purpose in doing this is to anchor the students to the poem by establishing some context, and while they are doing this, they will start to connect with the text. They will start to realize that they have had a similar conversation with one of their parents at one time or another.
It is quite a realization when students recognize that this poem, written almost 100 years ago, it still relevant today.
Next, I'll ask my students to look at the words and phrases that they highlighted.
"Why do you think the author chose to have the mom talk like this? Why do you think she talks like this, and What can her manner of speech teach us about her and her life?"
I'll have students discuss these questions with their group and report out to the class.
Finally, I'll ask students to talk about the stair.
I'll ask them, "Why does the author compare her life to a staircase?"
As students discuss this metaphor, they will be preparing their brains to dig a little deeper into the poem.
Now, I'll have students interpret that major metaphor in the poem. I'll ask them,
What does the narrator mean by, "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
I'll ask my students to use the RACE method to answer this question. In other words, they will Rephrase the question, Answer the question, Cite specific evidence from the poem to answer the question, and Explain what their evidence means. With Common Core, it is important for students to be able to cite specific textual evidence to support their ideas. (Even when their ideas are about poetry. )
Here is an example of how one of my students interpreted the poem.