Credit: American Academy of Poets, John Lucas, photographer
Even though African Americans gained a number of constitutional rights after the passage of the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments following the American Civil War (1861–1865), they still were not treated equally in Southern states or even nationally. Almost one hundred years later, during the post-World War II period, continued racial oppression, sanctioned by the segregation laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North, gave rise to the modern civil rights movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 sought to remedy inequality by prohibiting discrimination in schools, public facilities, and employment. Revisions to that act legally prohibited discrimination in other areas, such as housing and the work place. Despite these legal measures, racism and discrimination still persist in this country.
Claudia Rankine’s 2014 poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press) recounts a number of situations in which racism, either blatant or subtle, is evident today. “From Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” is one such poem.
The activities that follow in this lesson encourage students to enter the poem with a visceral understanding of the situation. They help them understand the poem and its structure and lead them into reasoned discussion of Americans’ experience of equality—considering how community members are treated not only in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of one another.
This lesson plan provides a sequence of activities that you can use with your students before, during, and after reading “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing].” Use the whole sequence, or any of the activities, to help your diverse learners enter, experience, and explore the meaning of the poem. Feel free to adjust each activity to meet the needs of your particular students. This lesson can be adapted for secondary students in grades 6–12.
Link to a video of the poet, Claudia Rankine, reading “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing].”
This lesson is an adaptation of an original lesson by the Academy of American Poet’s Educator in Residence, Madeleine Fuchs Holzer.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Note: The following activities invite your students to use gestures, which may make some of them uncomfortable. Encourage these students, in a way that acknowledges their discomfort, to participate. You might tell them they will learn something important from their participation and that no touching or inappropriate gestures will be allowed.
Poem at the Academy of American Poets website: “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]”
Incredible Bridges: Poets creating Community, “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” by Claudia Rankine version of this lesson is available from the Academy of American Poets
Link to a video of poet Claudia Rankine reading “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing].”
Perform this exercise before viewing the video and reading the poem.
Objective: Students will identify the role of gesture in conveying an idea or emotion.
Warm up: Go quickly around the room and ask each of your students to make a gesture that indicates an emotion. Remind your students that no touching of other students or inappropriate gesture will be tolerated.
Explain to your class that you will be studying a poem that deals with an incident on a train and that they will be asked to act out this incident as a way of understanding the poem better.
Ask your students to get into small groups of no more than five people each. Tell them they will act out the following scenario:
The scene is a crowded train. One girl is the only person standing when another girl enters the car. The second girl notices that the first one is standing even though there is an empty seat next to a boy. The first girl says she is afraid to sit down next to that person, because she is afraid of “people like him.” The second girl is from the same group as the boy. How does the second girl feel? What does she do? How does the boy feel? What does he do?
Give your students no more than fifteen minutes to plan and rehearse their skit. The skit should be no more than five minutes long. Remind them that they are acting, that this is not about them personally. If you feel it necessary, repeat that no touching of another student or use of inappropriate gestures is allowed during the skit.
Ask each group of students to perform their skit for the other students in the class. The observing students should write down what they noticed about how the actors presented their emotions in the skit. If a student says, “he was sad,” ask them to describe the action or gesture the student made that they think exhibited sadness.
Ask your students what they noticed in the skits. What were the gestures? What were the emotions portrayed? How did it feel to be the first girl? How did it feel to be the second girl? How did it feel to be the seated boy? What, if anything, surprised them about the way they felt? Would they feel differently if it were a boy standing, a girl sitting, and a second boy entering the train? In what way?
Objective: Students will complete a close reading of the poem “from Citizen, VI [On the train the woman standing]” by Claudia Rankine, paying attention to its poetic structure.
Project the poem “from Citizen, VI [On the train a woman standing]”
Ask your students to read the poem silently. As they read, they should write down phrases, images, and words that jump out at them. This includes words and phrases they might not know.
Prompt your students to notice how Claudia Rankine structures her lines. How many lines are there in a stanza? [See The Academy of American Poets, “From A Poet’s Glossary: Stanza”] How does this kind of structure affect the way they read the poem?
Select students to read aloud a single stanza of the poem each in turn until the poem is finished. There are thirteen stanzas in this poem, so that would be the ideal number of students to select. (Adapt this activity to accommodate your own class size.) Ask another thirteen students to repeat the same process. The listening students should add what they hear from the oral readings to their list of what they noticed when they silently read the poem. What happens when they hear each stanza in a different voice?
Ask your students to keep a running list on the front board of the words they have read and heard that they do not understand.
You can either conduct a separate vocabulary lesson about these words in which students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections or review the vocabulary as you progress through the other activities.
Objective: Students will notice the difference between experiencing a poem on a page and experiencing a poet reading her poem.
Tell your students that they will be watching a video of Claudia Rankine reading her poem. Ask them to record on paper what they notice in the poem that seems new and different while watching the video. What do they notice about the way Claudia Rankine reads the poem? How does she use her voice and facial gestures?
Show the video of Claudia Rankine reading her poem.
Ask your students to get back in their small groups to share what they have noticed. The group members should synthesize their findings into one list and choose another person from the group who later will share this list with the whole class.
Objective: Students will create a shared meaning of the poem by synthesizing what they have noticed.
Hold a three-part whole-class discussion. Start by having the representatives from each small group share their group lists by writing them on the front board.
Look at all the lists and circle the details that seem to come up most often. Use the circled details as a way to help your students arrive at a shared meaning for the poem by asking them what these details might mean. In this way, the details they notice become evidence they can use to support their interpretation of the poem.
In what way do the short stanzas and long lines inform the meaning of the poem? How does this structure make you think about the words?
Ask your students how the skits they created before the poem relate to the poem itself. How do the feelings they identified in their skits relate to the emotions expressed directly and indirectly in Claudia Rankine’s poem? What words and phrases does Claudia Rankine use to elicit those emotions in her readers? How does she use her voice and facial gestures to reinforce her words?
What do students think this poem is about? Have them use detailed evidence from the poem to support their answers.
Creating Deeper Meaning
- What do they think is most important in the video? What evidence do they have to support that it is important?
- Have them consider the background of the song and consider why it was important to the civil rights movement.
- How would they characterize the way the Freedom Singers sing? How does it make them feel? How does the audience react? What is their evidence?
1-2 class periods class periods