Lesson Plan: “Where I’m From”

Last week, I had the privilege of introducing an origin/identity poem discussion and writing exercise to my fourth graders. In this lesson, students study and discuss George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From,” and they write their own poems inspired by Lyon’s work. Lyon is the poet laureate of Kentucky, currently working on a project to collect poems from every county in the state. My lesson plan for this study is posted below. If you do a similar activity with your students, please post your experiences in the comments!

Wherever you are in the world, you and your students can use her form to explore how memories shape identity. Encourage your students to use vivid sensory details from sights, smells, sounds, sensations, and tastes that resonate with them deeply. The stronger and more important each image is to you, the stronger and more meaningful it will be for the reader.

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Social & Political Philosophy Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write a module, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

Amichai, Yehuda. “Wildpeace.”

Amichai, Yehuda. “Jerusalem,” translated by Stephen Mitchell.

A poignant perspective on Israeli-Palestinian conflict that sees two human beings just trying to get through the day.

Blanco, Alberto. “The Parakeets.” Also filed under Animal Ethics Poems.

Niazi, Muneer. “A Dream of Paradise in the Shadow of War.” Pakistan, This Same Sky p. 54. translated by Kamal, Daud. (see Resource List)

“The houses and their inmates/Stand amazed.” This stunning poem examines the inhumanity of war and the humanity that remains within war. I reserve too much discussion of this poem until I have heard the wisdom of a child. If any of my blog readers have the privilege of hearing a child’s perspective on this poem, please share their thoughts below!

Silverstein, Shel. “Colors.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 24 (see Resource List)

The speaker of the poem uses blends of red, orange, yellow, green, blue blond, brown, pink, and silver to describe different aspects of their body (including four colours in their skin alone). Also filed under Metaphysics Poems.

Silverstein, Shel. “Smart.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 35 (see Resource List)

This funny rhyming poem makes us wonder: Is it better to have lots of things or more expensive things? If you had to choose, is it better to be rich and/or save for the future or to have fun now? Why do you think so?

Silverstein, Shel. “I’m Making a List.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 37 (see Resource List)

Where the Sidewalk EndsThis tongue-in-cheek poem presents a speaker a bit fed up with all of the formalities that society expects us to say simply “for politeness.” Why do we say please and thank you? Why do we tell each other “Bless you” and “Gesundheit?” Is it mean not to say “thank you?” Why or why not? What about “I’m sorry” if you’ve heard someone’s feelings? Have you ever said something you didn’t really mean because you felt you had to? Would you do it again? Why or why not?

Note: Check out this interesting poem written by a teenage poet inspired by “I’m Making a List,” published on Teen Ink. 

Stevenson, Sharon. “Industrial Childhood.” Canada. This Same Sky, p. 67. (see Resource List)

Walker, Alice. Why War is Never a Good Idea, illustrated by Stefano Vitale

Is war always wrong? Why or why not? Does it make a difference if you were attacked first? Why or why not?

The speaker of this poem says “War has a mind of its own.” What does this mean? Can war think for itself? Do people do things during war that they wouldn’t do otherwise? Can you think of some examples?

Stefano Vitale’s illustrations bring new life to Alice Walker’s already vividly alive poem in a whirlwind of brightly-coloured scenery. We see the personification of war “Dressed in/Green & Brown/Imitating/Their fields,” preying on the vulnerable and destroying everything and everyone in its path. The illustrations work with the timeless words that more visually-minded or restless children might not listen to on their own to show us the juxtaposition of “the forest/With its/Rivers/& rocks/Its pumas/&/Its/Parakeets” and war as a “a white cloud/Trailing/An/Airplane/That/Dusts/Everything/Below/With/A powder/That/Kills.” We are introduced to the individuals touched by war, like the small boy and the donkey who is “Peacefull/Sniffing a pile/Of straw,” and the mother sitting beside a window whose baby “twirls/A lock of her/Dark hair/Suckles/For all/It is/Worth.”

“Now, suppose You/Become War,” says the speaker at the end. “It happens/To some of/The nicest/People/On earth.” What would it mean to become war? Can you be a nice person and also be part of a war?

Click here for a free web sampler from Harper Collins of the inside of this stunning book. 

Why War is Never a Good Idea

Multiculturalism Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

“Under This Sky,” Zia Hyder (Bangladesh), translated by Bhabani Sengupta with Naomi Shihab Nye, This Same Sky, p. 124

“There’s an enormous comfort,” begins Hyder, “knowing/we all live under this same sky,” no matter what continent we live on. The poem cycles through stark images of cities all over the world, highlighting the differences and commonalities between our experiences. Do these differences matter? Why or why not? This can also be a springboard to discussing Social/Political Philosophy on community formation and roles. What makes up a community? Can we be a community with people we have never met? If I’ve never met someone, do I have to care about them? Why or why not? For further discussion, this could link back to the discussion raised by “Napoleon” on how we care more or less about someone depending on how well we connect to them/how real they are to us.

“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52

Though originally posted as a poem raising metaphysical questions, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.

For more on Social/Political Philosophy, community formation, and the role of poetry in a community (!), visit Nicole Giambalvo’s module on Leo Lionni’s Frederick at Teaching Children Philosophy.

“Greenland’s History –or the history of the Danes on Greenland,” Sven Holm (Denmark), translted by Paula Hostrub-Jessen, This Same Sky, p. 169

Holm explores the cultural history of Greenland/Kalaalit Nunaat from a Danish perspective, and the ethics of colonization.

 

Animal Ethics Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

Blanco, Alberto. “The Parakeets.” Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.

Holub, Miroslav. “Napoleon.” Czechoslovakia. translated by Kaca Polackova. This Same Sky, p. 151 (see Resource List)

In this poem, none of the children in a classroom know who Napoleon Bonaparte is. A teacher asks questions about the historical figure, but the refrain comes back, “Nobody knows.” Presumably, the teacher has mentioned Napoleon Bonaparte as a historical figure, but has not discussed personal details of Bonaparte’s life. To the children, this figure is nothing but an abstraction. But then one child tells a story about a dog he knew personally named Napoleon, who was beaten and died of starvation. This Napoleon is someone the children know something about now, and “now all the children feel sorry/for Napoleon.” Since the children had been offered no way to connect to Napoleon Bonaparte personally, they have trouble genuinely caring about the individual, and they do not even remember who he is. Once they make a personal connection to the individual, they care for him immediately. This poem raises ethical questions about who we care for and why, who deserves equal consideration of interests, who should be included in our circle of moral consideration. The Community of Inquiry may like to consider: Is there anything special about the fact that Napoleon #2 is a dog? If the children had been told personal stories about Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, do you think they would have remembered him more clearly? If the teacher had introduced Bonaparte as if he were a person she had known herself, instead of someone who lived hundreds of years ago, would they have cared about him just as much as they begin to care about the canine Napoleon, or is there something special/important about his being a dog?

For more discussion of how children connect with non-human animals, see William Crain’s insightful book, The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children (Turning Stone Press, 2014). William Crain is a professor of psychology and founder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary. Click here for a review and discussion on the book from Our Hen House.

Norris, Leslie. “The Pit Ponies.” Wales. This Same Sky, p. 119 (see Resource List)

Moffit, Barbara. “Never to Crow.” United Poultry Concerns.

Silverstein, Shel. “Point of View.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p.

“Point of View” challenges us to think about an animal-based meal from the victims’ point of view, rather than from the point of view of the eater.

Visit All Things Upper Elementary for Amy Satterfield’s activity suggestions for using this poem as a gateway to thinking and writing about alternative perspectives in fiction, day-to-day discussions, and the media.

Silkin, Jon.“Caring for Animals.” England. printed in This Same Sky, p. 112 (see Resource List)

Sound of a Battery Hen.” United Poultry Concerns, 1997.

Metaphysics Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

“Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem, translated by Edward Field

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

From the first line of the poem, we are challenged to think about the nature of time in an unconventional way. What does it mean for something to happen “in the very earliest time?” Could something have come before that?

Furthermore, in “Magic Words,” the speaker asserts that a very, very long time ago, the world worked differently than it seems to today. Human and non-human animals could change their form at will, which makes us wonder what the essential and accidental properties of humans and non-human animals are. The speaker also explains that words had the power to change the physical world. Of course, many of us might say that words still possess strong powers! A whole discussion might be had on whether it is our words themselves that hold the power to change the world, or whether words serve only as inspiration for actions that humans must take.

“The Birth of a Stone,” Kwang-kyu Kim (South Korea), translated by Brother Anthony – printed in This Same Sky, p. 111

This poem raises the age old questions about what may or may not exist beyond our own awareness. “I wonder if there are stones/that no one has visited?” the speaker wonders. This brings to mind the classic problem of the tree falling alone in the forest. Over the first two stanzas, the speaker muses about what this ancient stone could have endured over millions or billions of years, outside the realm of human experience. At the end, the speaker concludes with a bold claim, that the stone in fact came into existence as soon as it was observed – “was only born/the moment I first saw it.”

This poem may also raise the epistemic questions around the “tree falls in a forest” conundrum: If see/hear a tree fall but no one else does, how do I know it really happened? Should anyone else believe me that it really happened? Why or why not?

“What is it that upsets the volcanoes?,” by Pablo Neruda (Chile), translated by William O’Daly, This Same Sky, p. 129

This short poem, comprised of four couplets with one line standing on its own in the middle, asks five unconventional questions about the nature of the natural world. Some of its questions also may dip into psychology. It begins, “What is it that upsets the volcanoes/that spit fire, cold, and rage?” Can a natural phenomenon that lacks a brain and nervous system be “upset?” What does it mean to be “upset?” Is it always an emotion? The volcano is described as spitting “cold,” but we know that lava is scalding. Can something be “hot” and “cold” at the same time in different ways? What would that mean?

“The Ship’s Whistle,” Tarapada Ray (India), translated by Shyamasree Devi and P. Lal, This Same Sky, p. 155

Here, there is more potential for discussion on the nature of Time. The poem sketches a scene of people getting ready to leave on a long journey. “Your old paper flowers still in that vase/Forever fresh—forever, what does that mean?” What does forever mean? Can we experience it? Is a paper flower always fresh? Can something be forever fresh that never was alive? Though in fact, the paper itself used to be a living tree, which was killed and preserved into an inanimate object. However, of course, all paper will decay and disintegrate someday, and become again part of the earth. Does this have any implication for the idea of “forever?”

Halfway Down,” A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, p. 83

This is a lovely little sketch of the special spot right in the middle of things, halfway down (or halfway up, depending on how you look at it) the middle of a staircase. For the child speaker of this poem, it is a particularly special place, unlike any other, where “all sorts of funny thoughts/Run round my head.” After trying to put a label on it and giving only a list of places it is not, the child concludes, “It isn’t really/Anywhere!/It’s somewhere else instead!”

  • Is it possible to not be anywhere at all?
  • If you aren’t anywhere, do you still exist? How do you know?
  • Where is the “halfway” point on a long staircase? If there are twenty steps, is it on the tenth? (really less than exactly half) Or the eleventh? (really more than half) Does it count if you’re on the ninth? How do you decide?

“Day-Dream,” Samarendra Sengupta (India), translated by Lila Ray, This Same Sky, p. 52

“Day-Dream” takes us into a vivid scene of a boy flying a kite alone. With no other people around, the kite takes on a life of its own. When the kite meets another kite in the air, the reader may wonder who, if anyone, is on the other end of the second kite. The line “Space is calligraphic in the clouds” prompts us to think about communication. “The boy/understands although no one else may read it.” What does it mean to communicate something to another person? Is he awake or dreaming?

We can also bring the discussion to epistemic questions.

  • What does the boy understand?
  • How does he know?
  • If you learn something in a dream, is it still true when you wake up?
  • How does the boy know whether he is awake or dreaming?

Finally, this poem can also be used to discuss multiculturalism. Children’s kite-flying is an important piece of Indian culture. A philosophy discussion around “Day-Dream” could easily be incorporated into a primary school unit on sharing different cultural activities and traditions.

Ravikovitch, Dahlia. “Magic.” Israel. translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, This Same Sky, p. 57

“Magic” begins “Today I’m a hill/tomorrow a sea.” Like “Magic Words,” “Magic” brings up more questions on fluid transformation in the natural world. As the poem cycles through a first person description of changing form, the poem can also prompt discussion of identity formation. Who do you think the speaker is?

Holman, Felice. “Possibilities.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 37

Another great poem to get kids thinking and wondering about what is and is not possible. This is a fun read-aloud with repetition and rhyming that feels fantastic to swirl around in your mouth, and a whimsical Gorey illustration that shows ideas and words as clouds emitting from a child’s consciousness.

Holman, Felice. “Voices.” At the Top of My Voice, p. 53

“The Ships of Theseus,” Steve Gehrke

The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical paradox about a beloved ship made entirely of wooden boards. As the ship begins to fall into disrepair, Theseus has each board replaced as soon as it breaks, until every board of the ship has been replaced. The paradox comes when we ask the question, is it still the same ship? A paradox occurs when two or more answers to a question seem equally plausible. There is a strong case for saying it is not the same ship: Every board is completely different! If the ship had been assembled by taking all of the new boards and putting them together at once, and the original ship simply destroyed, we would have no problem agreeing it there were two ships. However, there is also a strong case for the ship being the same: If it is a different ship now, when did it stop being the original ship? When the very last board had been replaced? When more than half the boards had been replaced? The moment the first board was replaced? If this is the case, then what does this tell us about similarly seemingly inconsequential changes in our possessions, or changes in ourselves? Like “Halfway Down” and its accompanying activity, this is another poem that can stimulate discussion of essential and accidental properties: How much can change about a thing or being before it/she/he becomes something/someone entirely new?

“If A Tree Falls,” Laura Purdie Salas, Bookspeak! Poems About Books

Most of us have heard of the philosophical quandary, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it still make a sound?” In this short and sweet poem that is part of a brilliant collection of poems bringing fiction to life, Salas takes the same idea to investigate the philosophy of fiction: If a book is never read, “does it still embrace a story?” Are stories real? What makes a story real?

Silverstein, Shel. “Colors.” Where the Sidewalk Ends, p. 24 (see Resource List)

Using the -ish sound to great effect, “Colors” describes the rainbow that makes up the outside of one person, concluding with the intriguing line, “And all the colors I am inside/Have not been invented yet.” What does it mean to invent a color? If no one had ever seen the color red, would it not exist at all? See if you can relate this to “If A Tree Falls” by Laura Purdie Salas. How do we know if something exists or not? (You can see how this line of inquiry can also lead into epistemic questions.) Also filed under Social & Political Philosophy Poems.

Epistemology Poems

All poems are either linked to or cited from a particular book that is listed in the Resources section.  If you are having trouble tracking down a copy of a particular poem, comment below for help and I’ll get back to you ASAP. These poem lists are not full modules, but suggestions of poems that could be good to work with, with some jumping off points for philosophical inquiry. If you would like me to write up more suggested questions and activities for an Example Module for a specific poem below, feel free to request! If you would like to write up a module for a poem, please contact me at madeleinebella@gmail.com for guidelines for submission, and I would be delighted to feature your work on the site. List in progress. Please feel free to suggest poems using the Comment box below! Thank you!

Dickinson, Emily. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” (1263)

This lovely quick poem can be read aloud by a few different members of the group before discussion, taking time to enjoy Dickinson’s imagery and metaphors and letting the rhymes swirl around in your mouths before tackling the sticky epistemological questions around the concept of “truth.”

  • Dickinson advises poets to tell the whole truth but indirectly. Is this possible?
  • Can one person know everything that is true?
  • Is “truth” an objective thing?
  • Can something be true and not true at the same time? How, or if not, why not?
  • Dickinson tells us that the truth can “blind” people if we get it all at once too abruptly. Is it possible to know too much?
  • Are there any things you think it would be better not to know? Why or why not?
  • Why is “Truth” capitalized in the seventh line but not in the first? Is this an attempt to personify truth somehow?

Field, Edward (translator) “Magic Words,” ancient Inuit poem

My full discussion and module is linked to here.

The poem tells us things about this very-long-ago time as if they are facts. Are we meant to assume that they are true? If so, how does the speaker know? None of us were there – but do you have to have witnessed something to know it is true? There are plenty of things we tend to accept as true without having witnessed them ourselves, but they often rely on secondary experience: For example, most of us have never been to the moon, but we believe what astronauts tell us about it because they have been there. We believe what is written in history books, but we do not believe that the events written about in novels really happened. When we see words on a page, how do we know whether or not to trust them?

Field, Edward. “Heaven and Hell.” Magic Words. 

The last page of this book of poetry reads:

“Of course it may be
that all I have been telling you is wrong,
for you cannot be
certain about what you cannot see.
But these are the stories that our people tell.”

After reading the book, it could be great to have a discussion about what we know, what we believe, and what we assume. Some questions to consider:

  • Is there anything you know without having seen it for yourself? How do you know?
  • What does it mean to be “certain” of something?
  • Is there a difference between knowing something and believing something?
  • If many people believe something, does that make it more true?
  • Can anything be more or less true than something else?

Holman, Felice. “I Can Fly.”  At the Top of My Voice, p. 11

The speaker of this poem insists, matter-of-factly, “I can fly, of course,” explaining that since people would talk too much about it, they do so only when no one else is around. Is there any way to prove this claim true or not?

Tueni, Nadia. “In the Lebanese Mountains.” Lebanon. translated by Samuel Hazo, This Same Sky, p. 140

Like “Magic Words,” this poem tells of a time when the barriers between species were not so clear. The last stanza tells us “Remember—the child’s recollection/of a secret kingdom just our age.” Is it possible to remember something from before you were born? Do you ever feel like young children understand things in a deeper or different way than adults are able to? Why or why not? Is it possible to be born knowing something? Why or why not? Can you think of some examples?