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Abby Cohen, NEH Summer Scholar 2015

Native American Poetry

Lesson Plan by Abby Cohen

Grade 10 English

Length:  Eight weeks

The first quarter of Grade 10 English focuses primarily on poetry, short fiction, and essays. Student-writing during this eight-week period is a mix of personal narratives, focused primarily on aspects of identity, and short analytical pieces, focused primarily on close-reading.

The year begins with an exploration of poetry whose subject is America and Americanness. We spend approximately a week (three, hour-long class periods) examining the poems and beginning to develop ideas about how America is represented in literature and what America “means.”

From there, we spend approximately four weeks reading short stories and essays. The texts change from year to year, but in the past my colleagues and I have grouped texts around topics like New York City, Food & Family, Loyalty, and Nature.

The first quarter concludes with the Grade 10 Poetry Project. We spend an additional five or six class periods on American poetry and then students embark on a deeper exploration of the work of a single poet. In previous years, the only criteria have been that the poet be an American.

My proposal is to focus this second study of poetry and the Poetry Project on Native American poets.

Questions to Consider with Students

What concerns and/or experiences, if any, are shared among these Native American writers? Where and how do differences in Native American experiences present themselves? What attitudes, if any, are expressed towards America’s white overculture? What attitudes, if any, are expressed towards Native American identity? What do these poems celebrate? Commonalities? Differences?

Where and how are the commonalities and differences visible? What do they mourn or condemn? Commonalities? Differences?

Where and how are the commonalities and differences visible? How-- if at all-- does the poet’s work reflect a particular geographic location? How-- if at all-- is the poet’s specific tribal affiliation present in her poetry? Who is the “Indian” you had in mind? Who do you meet in the poetry?

Topics to Address

Native American v. Indian v. Indigenous v. First Peoples Federal Policy: Treaty--> Removal--> Reservation--> Assimilation--> Self-Determination Specific, contemporary, place-based issues as they are referenced in the poetry.

Grade 10 Poetry Project

There is a rich collection of poetry by Native American writers in the library. The collection includes approximately thirty volumes of poetry by 20th and 21st century poets living and writing in the United States. Some of the poets will be familiar to you from the broad overview of Native American poetry we have completed in the past few weeks; others will be unknown to you and represent an opportunity to move beyond the borders of our shared classroom experience. Building upon our shared examination of poetry by and about Americans and America, this project asks you to engage deeply with the work of one Native American writer.

STEP ONE: Poet Selection

Find a poet whose writing speaks to you. Begin by going back to your Native American Poetry reader. Whose poetry makes you want to read more? The poet you select should be writing poems so powerful that you are drawn into their orbit. You should feel curious about the world the poet represents in her poems and the world that created the poet.

Once you have found that writer, immerse yourself in her poetry. Pore over the books we have in the library and identify the anthologies, online literary magazines, and print publications that have included the poet’s work. Choose six or seven poems that draw your attention and that you feel capture the essential themes, tone, and voice of the poet’s writing. Email me this list, noting the author, poem title, book title, and page number for each poem, by [_______________]. Read each poem on your list as if you were preparing it for class: annotate, look up unfamiliar words, and come up with a question or two that might launch a discussion of the poem. Submit your marked-up copies of the poems on [_______________].

STEP TWO: Poem Selection

From your group of poems, select one for further exploration and discovery. (This poem will also be included in the class anthology.) You may use any criteria you wish for making the selection and you may not, at first, know why the poem engages you. Your desire to spend some time with the poem is an indication that the poem is meaningful to you in some way.

Read and reread the poem. Review your annotations and develop a preliminary interpretation of the poem. Write 5-6 sentences explaining your thinking. This paragraph will be due on [_______________].

Eventually, you will be asked to answer the question: Why did you choose this poem? But not yet.


An explication (from the Latin ex- out of, and plicare- to fold) is a close reading of a single poem or passage of poetry. In this kind of analysis, you will talk about the meaning(s) of a poem and how each part of the poem contributes to the whole. You will follow the same, “I observe... that connects to... and it makes me think...” pattern that we have been using in class.  

Questions to ask about the poem as a whole:

  • Who is the speaker?
  • What is the structure of the poem?
  • Are there stanzas? Is there an identifiable meter form? Is there a rhyme scheme?
  • Does the poem fall into an identifiable category (sonnet, ballad, haiku, dramatic monologue)?
  • What, primarily, is the poem about? How do you know?

Questions to ask about specific parts of the poem:

  • Diction: Which particular words has the poet chosen? Why these particular words? What resonances do these words possess that other words do not?
  • Imagery: What images does the poem evoke? How are they evoked? How has the poet placed these images? Do the images connect or contrast with one another?
  • Literary Devices: What kind of figurative language is the poem using? Symbols, similes, hyperbole, allusions, metonymy, conceit, etc.? How is each element of figurative language adding to the meaning(s) of the poem?
  • Auditory and Visual Details: What read aloud, do the sounds of the words contribute to the poem’s meaning? How is the poem punctuated?


  1. Read the poem. Read it again. Read it aloud. Because you will have already annotated the poem, please use a clean copy as you begin your explication.
  2. Make several points about the poem’s structure and main purpose before you begin discussing individual lines.
  3. Take the poem apart into its smallest units and study them in and of themselves: words, lines, then stanzas.
  4. Talk about how these units relate to each other.
  5. Make connections between these smaller units and the poem as a whole.1

For these questions I have relied heavily on the Duke University Writing Studio guide to Poetry Explication:


The first paragraph should present your big ideas. Identify the poem’s speaker and situation and, if there is one, describe the poem’s central conflict. This paragraph will NOT have a thesis. Here are some simple, not-fancy opening sentences: “This poem is about...” “This poem explores the idea of...” “This poem shows the conflict between...”

The next paragraphs focus on the details of diction, imagery, literary devices, etc. that you have charted above. You should explain the poem line by line in terms of these details. Consider these sample topic sentence starters:

“The poem’s imagery becomes more violent in each stanza showing...”

“The formal diction in the early lines of the poem cannot hide...”

“The poem begins with a series of short, clipped sentences illustrating....”

The conclusion paragraph for this explication will not be a restatement of the main ideas in your introduction. Instead, this is where you will answer the question: Why did you choose this poem?

Perhaps you are moved by the writer’s humor, or anger, or sorrow? Perhaps you admire the poet’s use of language or mastery of a particular poetic form or device? Perhaps the poem triggers a memory or creates an echo of a personal experience? Or perhaps the poem inspires you to think new thoughts or to rethink previously held assumptions?2

We will have an in-class work day on [_______________] and your Explication DRAFT will be due on [_______________].

This portion of the assignment is based on a guide to poetry explication offered by The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

STEP FOUR: Biographical Research

Using the resources I will provide as well as information from the Poetry Foundation (http://, authors’ personal websites, published interviews, etc., develop a brief biography of the poet. Unlike the anodyne book-jacket biographies, your biography should make a connection between the facts of the poet’s life and her poetry. More specifically, how present is the writer’s life in her work? Even more specifically, how present is the poet’s Native Americanness in her work? Even more and more specifically, how present is the poet’s specific tribal affiliation in her work? Write a 2-3 paragraph literary biography in which you present the interesting facts from the poet’s life and connect those facts to what you see in her poetry.

The Biography will be due on [_____________].

STEP FIVE: Explication FINAL

Revise your explication to reflect the feedback you receive from me as well as any additional information you would like to add based on your biographical research. (For example, discovering that Sherman Alexie was, in fact, a star basketball player in high school might have significant bearing on your reading of his poem, “Defending Walt Whitman.”)

The Explication FINAL will be due on [___________].

Native American Poetry Reader, Preliminary List

*This list is very much a draft. The suggestions and feedback of my colleagues will determine the content of the reader. We will work from the reader for approximately two weeks before moving into the poetry project. We will not teach every poem in the reader, but will make selections based on personal preference, time, and specific class goals.

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, Alexie

Defending Walt Whitman, Alexie

Taking A Visitor to See the Ruins, Gunn-Allen

Hoop Dancer, Gunn-Allen

Blues-ing on the Brown Vibe, Belin

Night Travel, Belin

If I Laid Them End to End, Blaeser

Haiku Journey, Blaeser

Amelia’s First Ski Run, Dauenhauer

The Storm, Dauenhauer

The Strange People, Erdrich

I Was Sleeping Where the Black Oaks Move, Erdrich

Eagle Poem, Harjo

Ah, Ah, Harjo

The Sacred Circle, Louis

Manifest Destination, Louis

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee, Momaday

Earth & I Gave You Turquoise, Momaday

Time as Memory as Story, Ortiz

International Hour of Prayer for the Yellowstone Buffalo Herd, Rose

Ceremony, Silko

Love Poem, Silko

There is No Word for Goodbye, Tall Mountain

Good Grease, Tall Mountain

It Has Always Been This Way, Tapahonso

Prayer, Tapahonso

Remember the Things They Told Us, Tapahonso

Harlem, Montana: Just Off the Reservation, Welch

Dissociate, White

The Aura of the Blue Flower That is a Goddess, Young Bear


Poetry Collections for Grade 10 Poetry Project

Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo)

  • Woven Stone

Series: Sun Tracks (Book 21) Publisher: University of Arizona Press (September 1, 1992) ISBN-10: 0816513309 ISBN-13: 978-0816513307

Luci Tapahonso (Navajo)

  • A Breeze Swept Through: Poetry, Publisher: West End Press; 1st edition (December 31, 1987) ISBN-10: 0931122457 ISBN-13: 978-0931122453
  • Blue Horses Rush In: Poems and Stories, Series: Sun Tracks (Book 34) Publisher: University of Arizona Press (May 1, 1997) ISBN-10: 0816517282 ISBN-13: 978-0816517282
  • A Radiant Curve: Poems and Stories, Series: Sun Tracks (Book 64) Publisher: University of Arizona Press; Pap/Com edition (October 17, 2008) ISBN-10: 0816527091 ISBN-13: 978-0816527090

James Welch (Black Feet-Gros Ventre)

  • Riding the Earthboy 40, Series: Poets, Penguin Publisher: Penguin Books (October 5, 2004) ISBN-10: 0143034391 ISBN-13: 978-0143034391

Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe)

  • Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (August 17, 2004) ISBN-10: 0060935340 ISBN-13: 978-0060935344
  • Baptism and Desire: Poems, Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (December 7, 1990) ISBN-10: 0060920440 ISBN-13: 978-0060920449

Wendy Rose (Miwok-Hopi)

  • Bone Dance, Series: Sun Tracks (Book 27) Publisher: University of Arizona Press; First Edition edition (January 1, 1994) ISBN-10: 0816514283 ISBN-13: 978-0816514281

N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa)

  • Again the Far Morning: New and Selected Poems, Publisher: University of New Mexico Press; First Edition edition (April 15, 2011) ISBN-10: 0826348424 ISBN-13: 978-0826348425
  • In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems 1961-1991, Publisher: University of New Mexico Press (October 31, 2009) ISBN-10: 0826348165 ISBN-13: 978-0826348166

Joy Harjo (Muskogee)

  • How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2002, Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 17, 2004) ISBN-10: 0393325342 ISBN-13: 978-0393325348
  • The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: Poems, Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (August 17, 1996) ISBN-10: 039331362X ISBN-13: 978-0393313628

Adrian C. Louis (Lovelock Paiute)

  • Ceremonies of the Damned: Poems, Series: Western Literature Series Publisher: University of Nevada Press; First edition. edition (September 1, 1997) ISBN-10: 0874173027 ISBN-13: 978-0874173024
  • Blood Thirsty Savages: Poems, Publisher: Time Being Books; 1st edition (July 1, 1994) ISBN-10: 1568090110 ISBN-13: 978-1568090115

Orlando White (Navajo)

  • Bone Light, Publisher: Red Hen Press; 1 edition (February 15, 2009) ISBN-10: 1597091359 ISBN-13: 978-1597091350
  • LETTERRS, Publisher: Nightboat (May 5, 2015) ISBN-10: 193765835X ISBN-13: 978-1937658359

Esther Belin (Navajo)

  • From the Belly of My Beauty, Series: Sun Tracks (Book 38) Publisher: University of Arizona Press (August 1, 1999) ISBN-10: 0816519544 ISBN-13: 978-0816519545

Kim Blaeser (Anishinaabe)

  • Absentee Indians & Other Poems, Series: American Indian Studies Publisher: Michigan State University Press; First Edition edition (October 31, 2002) ISBN-10: 0870136070 ISBN-13: 978-0870136078
  • In the Belly of a Laughing God: Humour and Irony in Women’s Poetry (anthology) Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division (May 30, 2011) ISBN-10: 0802035671 ISBN-13: 978-0802035677

Sherman Alexie (Spokane, Coeur d'Alene)

  • The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, Publisher: Hanging Loose Press; 1st edition (May 1, 1992) ISBN-10: 0914610007 ISBN-13: 978-0914610007
  • The Summer of Black Widows, Publisher: Hanging Loose Press (January 1, 1996) ISBN-10: 1882413342 ISBN-13: 978-1882413348
  • First Indian on the Moon, Publisher: Hanging Loose Press; 1st edition (December 1, 1993) ISBN-10: 1882413024 ISBN-13: 978-1882413027

Nora Dauenhauer (Tlingit)

  • Life Woven with Song (Sun Tracks), Series: Sun Tracks (Book 41) Publisher: University of Arizona Press; 1.2.2000 edition (February 1, 2000) ISBN-10: 0816520062 ISBN-13: 978-0816520060

Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo, Sioux)

  • Life Is a Fatal Disease: Selected Poems, 1962-1995, Publisher: West End Press; 1st Edition edition (December 31, 1997) ISBN-10: 0931122856 ISBN-13: 978-0931122859

Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo)

Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie)

  • Manifestation Wolverine: The Collected Poetry of Ray Young Bear, Publisher: Open Road Media (October 27, 2015) ISBN-10: 1504014154 ISBN-13: 978-1504014151

Mary Tall Mountain (Koyukon Athabaskan)

  • The Light on The Tent Wall: A Bridging, Series: Native American Ser Publisher: UCLA American Indian Studies Center (January 1, 1990) ISBN-10: 0935626344 ISBN-13: 978-0935626346


Online Resources for Grade 10 Poetry Project

Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo)

Luci Tapahonso (Navajo)

James Welch (Black Feet-Gros Ventre)

Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe)

Wendy Rose (Miwok-Hopi)

N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa)

Joy Harjo (Muskogee)

Adrian C. Louis (Lovelock Paiute)

Orlando White (Navajo)

Esther Belin (Navajo)

Kim Blaeser (Anishinaabe)

Sherman Alexie (Spokane, Coeur d'Alene)

Nora Dauenhauer (Tlingit)

Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo, Sioux)

Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo)

Ray Young Bear (Mesquakie)

Mary Tall Mountain (Koyukon Athabaskan)