Lesson Plans: Grades

Whitman’s Echoes in the Inaugural Poem “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Created July 1, 2016

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Elizabeth Alexander image

Elizabeth Alexander

Credit: American Academy of Poets. Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In 1860, the original version of “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In this poem, Whitman rhythmically celebrated common citizens as they went about their daily lives as individuals and as part of the American whole. Flash forward to January 2009 when President Barack Obama gave his first inaugural address to the nation—echoing Whitman’s poetic style. For that inaugural ceremony, poet Elizabeth Alexander, was asked to write and deliver an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” that also echoes Whitman. Despite the different time periods and differences in issues facing our country, Whitman’s poetic style continues to resonate with modern America. This lesson explores those echoes within a 21st-century inaugural speech and poem as they anticipate the future of a renewed American community.

This lesson plan provides a sequence of activities that you can use with your students before, during, and after reading “Praise Song for the Day.” 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, Elizabeth Alexander, reading “Praise Song for the Day” composed for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama.

This lesson is an adaptation of an original lesson by the Academy of American Poet’s Educator in Residence, Madeleine Fuchs Holzer.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.
  • Students will identify poetic elements in a speech.
  • Students will compare the experience of reading a poem on a page to hearing and seeing a poet read a poem on video.
  • Students will synthesize echoes from Whitman’s poetry that appear in 21st-century inaugural poetry and speech.
  • Students will explore inaugural poetry as lens through which America can look forward to renewal.

College and Career Readiness Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2

Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9
Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take

Preparation and Resources

Poems at the Academy of American Poets website:

Background on the poets at the Academy of American Poets website:

Link to a video of the poet Elizabeth Alexander reading “Praise Song for the Day” the poem she composed for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony

Link to text of President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech January 2009

Link to video of President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech January 2009

Incredible Bridges: Poets Creating Community,  “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander version of this lesson is available from the Academy of American Poets

Worksheets

The following worksheets contain graphic organizers to assist students in collecting evidence for the various comparisons called for in activities in this lesson. Each worksheet is also linked within its corresponding activity.

Worksheet 1. Comparison: Style of Rhetoric and Style of Poetry

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”

Worksheet 2. Comparison: Two Styles of Poetry

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”

Worksheet 3. Comparison: Style of Rhetoric and Style of Poetry

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”

Worksheet 4. Echoes of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” in Rhetoric and Poetry:

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”

[Note: Worksheet 5 is offered as a graphic organizer for students developing their ideas for the summative lesson assessment. This worksheet is also linked within the Assessment section.]

Worksheet 5. Comparison: Two Inaugural Poems

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” and Richard Blanco’s “One Today” 

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. How Common Citizens Spend Their Time Today

Perform this exercise before viewing the video and reading the poems.

Objective:

Students will identify what kinds of work people do in the 21st century.

Conduct a whip around, where you ask each student in your class to quickly identify what men and women do as work in this century, both in the workplace and at home. If a student cannot think of something, they can say “pass” and you can return to them after everyone else has finished. Make sure to keep a list of their ideas on the board, since you will return to these shortly.

Activity 2. Group Work: 21st-Century Work Song

Objectives:    

  • Students will collaborate to create the first line or two of a song.
  • Students will present the first line or two of their 21st-century work song.

Explain to your students that the first poem they will read together is called “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, and that it was originally written 1860. As preparation, ask them to begin to think about how America “sings” today. (Inform students that Whitman’s term “sing’ is his way of expressing the different types of work Americans do.)

Have your students get into groups of no more than 4 students. Ask them to share the types of work they identified in the whip around and pick one type of work for which they will develop the first line or two of a song about that work that is true to the rhythm of 21st-century music.

Ask each small group to present the first line or two of their work song to the class. Remind them to use a proper introduction and appropriately loud voices.

While the groups are presenting, the students who are watching/listening should record what stands out to them in the “songs.”

Activity 3. Whitman’s Poem “I Hear America Singing”

Objectives:    

  • Students will read lines from a poem so the whole class can hear them.
  • Students will identify repetition as a way of creating rhythm in a poem.
  • Students will identify similarities and differences between their work-song lines and “I Hear America Singing.”

Project the poem “I Hear America Singing” from Poets.org. Note this poem is a later version (1867) and is not the original.

Ask one student to read a line of the poem, then stop. Continue going around the room, asking a student to read a line that begins with a capital letter, then stop. Continue until the end of the poem.

Repeat the above process, asking different students to read the lines. During the second reading, the students who are listening should be writing down the words and phrases that jump out to them.

Ask your students:

  • What do you notice about the structure of the lines when you look at the poem? Where is there repetition? What does this kind of structure do in a poem? [If necessary, consult EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary for definition of repetition]
  • Is there a rhythm to the poem? How does Whitman accomplish this rhythm? [If necessary, consult EDSITEment’s Literary Glossary for definition of rhythm]

Ask your students to get back into their original small groups. Have them discuss what they think are the similarities and differences between what they and the other groups wrote about in their work songs (Activity 2) and  Whitman's “I Hear America Singing.” Make sure they record their thoughts because they will be used in later activities.

Vocabulary

There are several texts in this lesson plan, all of which may have complicated vocabulary for some of your students. Have your students 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 on these words where students try to figure out their meaning from context and connections, or go through this process as you progress through the activities in the lesson.

Activity 4. President Obama’s First Inaugural Speech

Objectives:

  • Students will identify poetic elements in President Obama’s rhetoric from his historic 2009 inaugural address to the nation.
  • Students will identify similarities and differences between President Obama’s rhetorical style and Walt Whitman’s poetic style.

 [As a preliminary activity, if necessary, discuss with students what the inauguration of an American president involves. The following EDSITEment resources may be referenced:

Show your students the first eight minutes of President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address to the nation in 2009, available in this video. The video should be shown two times.

The first time, ask them to watch it straight through. The second time, ask them to jot down things that “jump out at them” in the speech.

Ask any or all of the following questions to help them write down what they notice in the rhetoric of the speech. [If necessary, consult EDSITEment Literary Glossary for a definition of rhetoric.]

  • What do they hear? Is there any repetition? If so, where?
  • What words and phrases seem important? Why?
  • Does there seem to be a rhythm to his speech? If so, how does he achieve it?

Ask your students to form their small groups. Ask them to look for similarities and differences between the style of rhetoric in President Obama’s speech and the style of poetry in Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing.” Have them use their notes from Activity 2 and Activity 3 as reference. Make sure they keep their notes for later use.

Teachers may want students to record their comparison using the following worksheet:

Worksheet 1. Comparison: Style of Rhetoric and Style of Poetry

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Walt Whitman’s Poem “I Hear America Singing”

Activity 5. Reading “Praise Song for the Day”

Objective: Students will identify and record key words and phrases in the poem to use in further analysis.

Project Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” from Poets.org. Explain that this poet was commissioned to write a poem that she read aloud to the nation on the occasion of President Obama’s first inaugural ceremony in January 2009

Ask one student to read the entire poem aloud followed by another student reading the poem. The first time your students hear the poem, they should just listen to it, and follow the words in the written poem. The second time, ask your students to record the words and phrases that jump out at them.

What else do they notice when they look at the written poem? Ask them to write down their additional thoughts with supporting details.

Activity 6. Watching Elizabeth Alexander Reading “Praise Song for the Day”

Objective: Students will notice the difference between experiencing a poem on a page and experiencing the poet reading her poem.

Tell your students that, while they are viewing the video of Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem aloud, they are to record on paper what they notice in the poem that is new and different for them. What do they notice about the way Alexander reads the poem? How do her voice and her facial expression reflect the poem and add to it?

Show the video of Elizabeth Alexander reading her poem “Praise Song for the Day” 

Activity 7. Inaugural Speech and Poetry

Objectives:    

  • Students will work collaboratively.
  • Students will identify the similarities and differences between “Praise Song for the Day” and Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”
  • Students will identify the similarities and differences between the inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day” and President Obama’s inaugural speech (2009.)

Ask your students to return to their small groups to share what they have noticed. They should share the words, phrases, and structure they think are important in “Praise Song for the Day.”

  • What elements in “Praise Song for the Day” strikes students as similar to, and different from Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing”?

Teachers may want students to record their comparison using the following worksheet:

Worksheet 2. Comparison: Style of Poetry

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”

Ask each group of students to identify what they noticed in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem that is similar to, and what is different from, President Obama’s inaugural speech (2009.)

  • What might be the contextual reason for their similarities?
  • What is the structural reason for their differences?
  • Why is one classified as a “poem” and one classified as a “speech”?

Teachers may want students to record their comparison using the following worksheet:

Worksheet 3. Comparison: Style of Rhetoric and Style of Poetry

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Elizabeth Alexander’s Poem “Praise Song for the Day.” 

Activity 8. Echoes of Whitman in Inaugural Speech and Poetry

Objectives:    

  • Students will show how Walt Whitman’s words and poetic structure in “I Hear America. Singing” echo through both President Obama’s inaugural speech (2009) and Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”
  • Students will identify the important aspects of poetry and rhetoric that are part of a president’s inauguration.

Using evidence from their small groups, ask one person from each small group to report the group’s findings. Using this information, as well as information other students may volunteer, conduct a whole-class discussion to:

  • synthesize the echoes from Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” that appear in President Obama’s speech and in Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, and consider why they used them;
  • brainstorm ideas for important elements to include in inaugural rhetoric and poetry.

Teachers may want students to record their information using the following worksheet:

Worksheet 4.

Echoes of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” in Inaugural Rhetoric and Poetry:

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (2009) and Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day”

Assessment

Read a different inaugural poem, this one from President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony held upon his re-election in 2013, with your students. This inaugural poem, “One Today,” by poet Richard Blanco is available from the Academy of American Poets.

Have students write a compare/contrast essay answering the following questions:

  • What does “One Today” have in common with “Praise Song for the Day?”
  • How are the two poems different?
  • How do they each represent the historical context in which they were written?
  • Based on your answers to the above questions what do you think were the important elements in these two inaugural poems? Cite evidence for your conclusion.

Teachers may want students to record their comparison using the following worksheet:

Worksheet 5. Comparison: Two Inaugural Poems

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” and Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

With your students, develop an evaluation tool for their work using the terms exemplary, proficient, developing, and basic. What do they (and you) think are the characteristics of an exemplary essay that compares “Praise Song for the Day” with “One Today?” A proficient one? One that is developing or basic? Similarly, what are the characteristics of an exemplary, proficient, developing, or basic description of the important elements in these Inaugural poem?

Extending The Lesson

  • Ask your students to complete the 21st-century work “songs” they started in the Activity 1 of this lesson plan.
  • Read the full text of several other inaugural speeches (e.g. that of John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural speech.) Ask your students to write an inaugural speech as if they were the next president of the United States. Have them draw on what they know about this time period and the force of repetition as a rhetorical device.
  • Ask your students to write inaugural poems as if they were the next inaugural poet of the United States. Have them build on what they have learned about the rhythmic structures of “I Hear America Singing” and its echoes within “Praise Song for the Day.” Have them draw on their knowledge of work in the 21st century (See Activity 2) to be inclusive of Americans as individuals and as parts of an American whole.
  • Richard Blanco’s “One Today” has been turned into a picture book for young children. Ask your students to illustrate their own inaugural poems, as if they were creating a picture book. Have your students present their poems and picture books to one another or to other members of their school community.

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Incredible Bridges
Skills
  • Auditory analysis
  • Discussion
  • Poetry analysis
  • Poetry writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Visual analysis
Authors
  • Madeleine Fuchs Holzer, Academy of American Poets

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