Identifying and Analyzing Form and Figurative Language in Claude McKay's, If We Must Die

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SWBAT identify, respond to, and analyze the effects of form and meaning of figurative language in a sonnet by engaging in guided close reading of structure and by completing a poetry response form to analyze and identify figurative language.

Big Idea

Today's Challenge: How to make a poem that was written in the 1930's about prejudice and personal pride relevant for our 21st century students? The poetry response form will help!


10 minutes

Analogy Prompt

I periodically will present my students with an analogy prompt.  For this lesson I write on the white board: "A poem is like  __________________ because _________________."  I then ask them to complete this poem analogy in their journals and then share it with a learning partner.

After they share their poem analogy , I ask for volunteers to share their analogies with the class.

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

I use a power point presentation, A Rhyme and Reason, as first a review of rhyme scheme (slides #2-8).  On slide #9 I project Robert Frost's poem "Spring Pools"  while asking students to read the poem silently as I read it out loud.  Next I ask for volunteers to help with identifying the poems rhyme scheme.  As they give me the correct letters, I add them on the lines in the space provided.

Next I explain that Robert Frost's highly symbolic poem describes perfection in the world of Nature.  I ask them to locate a line that would demonstrate this sense of perfection: "Still reflect the total sky almost without defect"  As a class I next facilitate a discussion of the lines meaning; "...the pools of water are temporary and are formed by the melting of the snow during spring.  Even though they are located within forests, an opening to the sky because trees have little or no foliage in winter, can be seen are also reflected in the water..." Next we continue to analyze the poem as a class by identifying the use figurative language and the meditative tone the poem creates.

In slide #10, I give a brief review Shakespearean Sonnet because many of my students were introduced to it last year. I explain that there are many different ways to write a sonnet, which is basically just a particular kind of short poem. I let them know that Shakespeare's sonnets have a very specific form, which the poet Claude McKay borrowed in "If We Must Die." 

Lastly, I remind my students that many writers and artists lived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and were part of a creative community that found its voice in what they all should know as the Harlem Renaissance.  I explain that the poem that they are about to read talk of  the black soldiers returning home from World War 2 and a new sense of pride, and militancy to stand up for what is one's personal right as an American citizens.  I also explain that Claude McKay wrote this poem as a universal message for anyone, regardless of race, who feels oppressed by society's prejudices.

To offer students more insight into why the author wrote this poem, I  play the short video of Claude McKay who speaks about the "why"  followed by a reading of "If We Must Die."

Student Learning Activity

30 minutes

Next I project the poem, slide #11, as well as pass out a copy of "If We Must Die" to every student.  I read the poem out loud while asking students to read it to themselves.  I then ask them to identify the poems rhyme scheme by writing the letters next to the end rhymes. 

I then project slides #12-13 which address the rhyme scheme and the poems couplets.  I tell my students that another device McKay uses from the Shakespearean Sonnet format is a feature called a "turn."  I explain that this is a moment in the poem where the theme or the tone changes in a surprising way. I ask students to discuss with a partner were they think this "turn" takes place by citing evidence form the poem RL.9-10.1.

After getting a few responses I acknowledge correct answers, and then explain that the "turn" comes at line 9 (which I indicate with the number 9) where the speaker calls his kinsmen (friends) to action: "O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!"  We continue to analyze the poems use of figurative language, symbolism and how it impacts theme by filling out a Poetry Response Form as required in standard RL.9-10.4.

Wrap Up

10 minutes

Ticket to Leave

For the wrap up I ask what are two reasons why Claude McKay's poem is also considered a sonnet?  I use the Cold Call techniques to check for understanding by randomly calling on a few students to give me their answers SL.9-10.1a.