Reflection: Real World Applications Using Poetry to Understand History - Section 2: Bob Dylan's Interpretation of the Emmett Till Story


I was not really into history when I was in school.  My sister was, but I was the literature person. She thought I was crazy, I thought she was crazy, and in reality, who knows.

I'm not really happy with my understanding of history.  The way I was taught history, was that it was a collection of facts.  Dates. I didn't really get that events were connected until I took AP American History with Mr. Notta my junior year of high school.  That was the first time that I realized that there could be stories behind the events, behind the individuals.  I don't remember all the stories Mr. Notta told us about historical people, but I do remember that that was the first time I realized that history was a story.  That literature sometimes tells historical stories.  He would always give us book recommendations.  One of those recommendations was Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It took me awhile to read that book, but it gave me an understanding of an historical event that a list of facts couldn't give me.  It gave me the human side, the human understanding.

I know that many English teachers are worried about the stress on nonfiction, rather than fiction.  Students do need to read more nonfiction, but it shouldn't be the job of just the English teacher.  It should be the job of all teachers. 

So what can an English teacher do to balance literary needs?  I love multigenre units like this Emmett Till unit.  It blends into the next unit, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" seamlessly, and sometimes I consider them one unit. With multigenre, thematic units, students can explore a topic, a theme, using different genres.  They'll read nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. I think that's what an English teacher can do. 

I may not be a history teacher.  I would never call myself a history teacher.  However, I do know that in seventh grade, the focus is on historical writing and eighth grade is mythology.  I do know that I can help history come alive by providing students opportunities to read about historical events and individuals in different genres. 

If you're interested in podcasts, check out Radiolab and This American Life.  They pretty much do the same thing--make connections between events, individuals, and themes.

  When History and Literature Collide
  Real World Applications: When History and Literature Collide
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Using Poetry to Understand History

Unit 9: What Happened to Emmett Till?: Analyzing Multiple Sources to Discover History
Lesson 7 of 10

Objective: 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.

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