Happy (belated) Birthday, Maya Angelou!

Yesterday would have been Maya Angelou’s 88th birthday, and though she is not here to celebrate with us, she’s left a legacy of the written word that we can celebrate in her honor.


Today, I would just like to share some of Angelou’s poetry that we may not know as well as “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” – and poems that would easily add to much of what we’re teaching:

A Brave and Startling Truth by Maya Angelou  (1995, for the UN’s 50th Anniversary)

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

There are many topics and “big ideas” we could connect this poem with – in order to work it into what we’re teaching about contemporary and current events or literature. We could connect it to war, the environment, the potential (and disappointment? and hope?) of people.  The repeated “When we come to it,” emphasizes our still-coming-into-itness.  What might our students have to say about this in light of other things they’re learning or reading?  Are we closer than humanity was in 1995 . . . or further away?

This poem may also work nicely paired with a poem from a previous post, Matthew Olzmann’s Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz, which is about the violence happening in America – in schools and elsewhere.  It begins:

You whom I could not save,
Listen to me. 

I wonder what these two poems would have to say and reveal about one another. It might be an interesting discussion or Socratic Seminar.

At the time of Angelou’s death, she had been working on a collaborative project with producers Shawn Rivera and RoccStarr, who focused on original beats and instrumentals as Angelou recited her poem, “Harlem Hopscotch”:

One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.

In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.

All the peoples out of work,
Hold for three, now twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.

Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost, I think I won.

The video can be seen with this Huffington Post article, “The Music Video For ‘Harlem Hopscotch’ from Maya Angelou’s Posthumous Hip-Hop Album, is Here.”


And, finally, the poem most often used in tributes right after her death, “When Great Trees Fall,” published as the last poem in the 1990 collection of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved. 

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.


And if you want to participate in “Take a Poet to Word Day,” here’s your chance with Maya: http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Take-Your-Poet-to-Work-Day-Printable-Maya-Angelou.jpg


#TechTuesdays; Ted-Ed & Three Interpretations of Walt Whitman

Ted-Ed is an off-shoot of TED.com, which gathers (from its own conventions-of-sorts) talks from experts in their field that are often ground-breaking, inspiring, terrifying, eye-opening, etc.

Basically, Ted-Ed is a resource where teachers or students (or anyone) could check out short videos that are paired with multiple choice and open-ended questions, “dig deeper” resources to extend the discussion, and guided/open discussion forums about the lesson.  They can be lessons students navigate on their own (flipped-classroom-style), in computer labs with teacher facilitation or in pairs/small groups, or as a whole class in the classroom.  They could also inspire performance assessment ideas and options moving forward.

Some of these lessons are organized in series.  The one I’m sharing today are from the “Reading Between the Lines” series.

noiseless spider

  • “A Poetic Experiment: Walt Whitman, Interpreted by Three Animators” by Justin Moore
    • Analysis & Evaluation: This Ted-Ed lesson presents three different readings of “The Noiseless Patient Spider” paired with three different animations.   I like this Ted-Ed lesson for so many reasons.  It begs for a comparison/contrast and a discussion about perspective and impact of author’s choices. For discussions and/or assignments of this sort, students could hit RL.9-10.5 & RL.11-12.5 (analyze author’s choices and how they create effects) and/or RL.9-10.7 & RL.11-12.7 (analyze the representation of a subject or key scene in two different artistic mediums or multiple interpretations).  If you simply want to use these three interpretations and the repetition of it to help students understand the poem (the open-ended questions work to this end), then students could hit RL.9-10.2 (determine a theme/central idea and analyze its development). If you want them analyzing the spoken versions separately (or in addition to an animation-interpretation analysis), you could hit the beginning of SL.9-10.3 (evaluate a speaker’s point of view).
    • Performance Assessment Idea: I love (LOVE!) the potential this type of video has for our performance assessments that we can assign in class (so this one could become a model and practice).  Maybe students, in small groups, create a complete interpretation that represent both in voice (how will they read/perform the poem) and in original drawing/art (I would select how many drawings you would want for the assignment).  You could assign perspectives or just allow students to approach it from their own angle (this, I would think, would depend on the level of your students and how much practice/confidence they have in developing their own interpretations.).  While turning it into a video might be hard for some groups (MovieMaker or iMovie would work), completing a Prezi or Powerpoint with voice-over or with the reading/performance of the poem in class would also work.  If students have been analyzing and interpreting poetry and/or text all marking period long, this would make a nice cumulative assignment to assess their interpretation skills (RL.9-12.1 – textual evidence & RL.9-12.2 central ideas) and possibly even their presentation skills (SL.9-12.4-6).
      • What the audience/listeners do during the presentations could also be part of the overall assessment grade.  If we have them complete an analysis of author’s choices (structure) and evaluate those choices’ impacts, students would hit RL.9-12.5 (the “authors” they are evaluating and analyzing would be their other classmates’ projects).
      • To hit the writing requirement (W.9-12.4produce clear and coherent writing appropriate to task/purpose/audience) of the performance assessment rubric, groups could turn in a one-page explanation of their interpretation and how their animations/reading reveal that interpretation. I think your evaluation of how their interpretation is represented (task & purpose) could also factor into this element of the rubric.
      • W.9-12.8 (gather relevant information from multiple sources . . . ) is also at play in performance assessments since they should be researched-based.  This might be a stretch for an assignment of this sort, but quoting the original poem directly and citing the lines directly in the one-page explanation and specifically referencing /quoting other groups projects might help to meet it.  They could also look for some animation-interpretations of poetry as reference-points and compile these in an annotated bibliography they submit.
  • I’m sure there are many more options for this kind of assignment as a performance assessment as well as more options for using this TedEd lesson – but this is the magic of TedEd!

Please note that I’ve only briefly explained the standards listed.  Before developing an assignment that hits these standards, I would review them in more detail.  And remember that these standards are the end-goals and require some interpretation.  We can hit portions of these standards now in order to prepare them to meet them more fully in future assignments.

9-10 standards mentioned in this post:

Reading Literature

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).


Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)

Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Speaking & Listening

Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.

Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grades 9-10 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

11-12 standards mentioned in this post:

Reading Literature

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)


(4 is the same as the 9-10 standard)

Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.


Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

(4-6 are the same as the 9-10 standards)