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Erasing History: Engaging with Primary Sources Through Erasure Poetry

Author: Matthew Menschner


Kensington CAPA

Year: 2019

Seminar: Modern and Contemporary U.S. Poetry

Grade Level: 10

Keywords: Bill of Rights, blackout poetry, constitution, Declaration of Independence, historical documents, History, poetry

School Subject(s): History, Social Studies

Utilizing primary sources is an essential task for both students and teachers of history. The unfortunate reality of using authentic historical documents is that, while important, many students find them dry and uninteresting. This could be at least partially attributed to the fact that the majority of activities surrounding primary sources require students to conduct a routine analysis; in most cases, students read the pieces and answer a series of textually-dependent questions or cite evidence from the text in response to a writing prompt or essay question. Understandably, many students do not enjoy these types of activities. While historical thinking skills are important, there is a huge disparity between the importance of possessing these skills and the level of depth in which students engage with the documents. The beginning of the school year is especially difficult for teaching with primary sources. Students struggle with the language of historical documents in early American history, often becoming frustrated, thus exacerbating an already difficult task.

In an effort to get students to engage with traditionally difficult texts, I plan to have them conduct erasure and blackout poetry using documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Erasure poetry is created by erasing portions of a text and using the leftover words to create a new, original piece. Blackout poetry works similarly, but rather than erasing the text writers can use art supplies to cover up portions of text, working with what remains. The primary inspiration for this idea comes from Declaration, by Tracy K. Smith and selected poems from Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. Declaration is an erasure poem using text from the Declaration of Independence, and Zong! is a collection of erasure poems utilizing the text of Gregson v. Gilbert, a court case documenting the murder of 150 African slaves aboard the ship Zong. As we participate in close collaborative readings of poetry, students will concurrently engage with historical documents, creating their own poetry by engaging with these texts.

Download Unit: Menschner-M.-19.01.03.pdf

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Full Unit Text
Content Objectives


I work at a small neighborhood high school in Kensington, Philadelphia. The school population is comprised of 70% Latino students, 25% African American students and 5% listed as “other.” Many students at the school feel disconnected with their cultural history, often extolling that continually learning about world & American history does not pertain to their own interests and ideas of identity. Excerpts from Zong! tell a tragic, yet necessary narrative. Students can use Tracy K. Smith’s Declaration poem as a model to create their own unique pieces from texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. My students understand that while the Declaration claims all men are created equal, in 1776 equality was more of an ideal than standard practice. By creating a new narrative using the existing texts, it allows them to contribute to the living history of the documents and engage with them in a way far more meaningful than a simple close readings. The unit will explore the founding documents of American government, poems by Tracy K. Smith, M. NourbeSe Philip, and other primary source texts such as the full transcript of Gregson v. Gilbert.

As a history teacher, source analysis is the backbone of many lesson plans. Students tend to roll their eyes when the sources for analysis come out, lamenting the dive into dusty documents. Engaging students with poetry offers the opportunity to work with source documents in a non-traditional methodology. Cross-curricular lesson planning improves learning outcomes, helps to close achievement gaps and contributes to more authentic learning and literacy acquisition. Because the students at my school exhibit major disparities in literacy levels and general academic performance, this unit places a large emphasis on vocabulary, word choice and the meaning of individual words, phrases and sentences. It incorporates Common Core standards from both English and Social Studies.

The short-form nature of most poems allows for multiple readings, deep analysis and a collaborative approach that would be far more difficult with extended texts. Furthermore, by utilizing the collaborative close reading strategy, poems can be dissected in small groups, or as a whole class, with many different varieties in the way these types of activities are executed. In other words, adopt these activities as they appear in the lesson plans below, or experiment. There will be a specific section on reading strategies later in the unit.


The poet is a detective and the detective a poet, writes Thomas More, and that’s what I feel like — a detective sifting the evidence, trying to remove the veil hiding the facts.”

  • M. NourbeSe Philip

Erasure poetry is a form of found poetry that is created by erasing or blacking out a portion of an existing text. The poet creates a new piece by leaving only the words to be organized in prose, communicating a new narrative or idea. Ronald Johnson is generally considered the father of erasure poetry. In his 1977 work Radi Os, Johnson deconstructs the text of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to create something entirely new. In A Brief History of Erasure Poetics, Travis MacDonald posits, “by rendering Milton largely inaudible, Johnson has, in effect, obliterated the notion of the textual object as a sacred, fixed entity.” (Macdonald 4) This ideology translates to high school history classrooms nicely, as students are expected to dissect a variety of documents, both technical and historical, and it is important that they engage with these documents dynamically, rather than as static texts existing in a vacuum. They will have a newfound opportunity to contribute to the evolving history of the document.

Tom Phillips expanded on the foundations laid by Ronald Johnson in his ongoing work A Humument, an altered book that utilizes the original text of W.H. Mallock’s 1892 work A Human Document. Humument is noteworthy because it incorporates art into the pages, giving it a new dimension. This type of erasure poetry serves as a fantastic model for how students could utilize their artistic talents to give another dimension to the living history of the texts they are working with. Working with a preexisting text and redacting it to weave a new narrative is a useful tool to inspire critical readings. Many student lambast rote analyses of historical texts, and rightfully so. These types of close readings are often for the sake of memorization, contextualization, or for providing supporting details in the pursuit of answering a constructed-response exam question. However, when students dive into a document with the intent of creating something new, “…the paradigm of the reader as literary detective, encouraged to go ‘against the grain’ or ‘beneath the surface’ in the search of an underlying ideological truth, plundering the depths of the text to show what the work cannot itself know, can feel exhausted or even routinely paranoid.” (Eve 1) Students of history are right to feel exhausted or paranoid after such close readings, for the work is difficult yet rewarding, and a healthy level of skepticism and paranoia are beneficial to all critical thinkers.

Erasure poetry has seen a resurgence in recent years, after a period of underutilization for the last several decades. Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called Declaration, featured in the New Yorker in 2017, and later in her 2018 book, Wade in the Water. The erasure poem uses excerpts from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, specifically the list of offenses on behalf of George III and Parliament, to tell a side of history that the document itself did not and could not. While open to close reading and different interpretations, it is immediately evident that Smith is writing for a group of people explicitly left out of the claim that all men are born free and created equal: African slaves. The first several lines of the poem read:

He has

sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.

He has plundered our—

ravaged our—

destroyed the lives of our—

taking away our—

abolishing our most valuable—

This passage espouses the plight of enslaved Africans during a time when political philosophers were claiming all men were created equal. Furthermore, the line, “sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people,” could be applied to modern-day struggles against police brutality. Through this erasure, Smith has contributed to the living history of the document in a way that is unique and necessary.

Two other erasure poems that appear in Smith’s anthology Wade in the Water, “The Greatest Personal Privation” and “Unwritten” draw text from letters between members of the Mary and Charles Colcock Jones family. These letters concern the sale of their slaves, Patience, Porter and their children in Liberty County, Georgia. Smith draws from Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place: A Platantation Epic (Yale University Press, 2005) for the text in these poems, as well as the historical understanding of plantation life necessary for such an undertaking. Clarke’s text is rife with opportunities for similarly curated works in a history classroom, and thus affords another opportunity for students to engage with primary and secondary source documents via erasure and blackout.

Another poetic work, similar due to both the source text and the publication date, Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip uses the original text of Gregson v. Gilbert to create a series of erasure poems detailing the massacre aboard the Zong slave ship. In November, 1781, the captain of the ship ordered that 150 slaves be murdered by drowning in order to collect insurance money. Philip herself claims that this is a story that “cannot be told yet must be told,” and is done so through the repurposed texts. Both haunting and compelling, the poems in Zong! tell an unwritten part of history. The works within tell a tale that is difficult to come to terms with, yet is necessary in understanding the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Zong! serves as yet another model for erasure poetry in the classroom, and tasks readers with grappling with a historical document in a way that begs a much more critical analysis than a simple close reading.

At the end of the anthology Philip discusses the necessity of retelling the story of the Zong and its passengers. The story is tragic, compelling and “…it must be told…” according to the author. (Philip 189) In 1781 the Zong, captained by Luke Collingwood, left the West Coast of Africa with 470 slaves aboard. The destination was Jamaica. Voyages of this nature would usually take about six to nine weeks, however, the Zong took almost four months due to Collingwood’s navigational errors. During this time, some of the slaves aboard the Zong died due to illness and dehydration, others after being thrown overboard to drown at the order of the captain. Collingwood believed that if the slaves died due to natural causes, the owners of the ship would incur the cost. If the deaths were ruled accidental, however, via drowning, for instance, the underwriters would bear the financial loss instead.

A legal battle ensued upon the ship’s return to Liverpool. The owners, the Messrs Gregson, made a claim under maritime insurance law to recoup the cost of the slave cargo. The Messrs Gilbert, the insurers, refused to pay. After the first trial in which the jury ruled in favor of the ship’s owners, an appeal was granted to the insurers. The Earl of Mansfield presided over the case, and this time the ruling was in favor of the insurers, absolving them of the financial responsibility for the murdered slaves. The legal documents of that case, Gregson v. Gilbert, formed the basis of Philip’s work in Zong! to “not tell the story that must be told.” (Philip 189) While the poems in Zong! are a treasure trove of material to analyze with students in class, after they have sufficient experience with analyzing erasure poetry the full legal text of Gregson v. Gilbert can be utilized in class to do precisely the type of work that Philip did in writing Zong!


This unit is intended for students in a 10th Grade American History course, but is also applicable to African American History and Social Science courses at the 11th and 12th grade levels, respectively. The students meet two to three times per week, on a rotating A/B block schedule, for 90-minutes at a time. Teachers operating under a period schedule, with classes that meet daily, can amend the activities to fit their allotted time.

The objectives for this unit include the following:

  • Conduct collaborative close readings of poetry, primary, and secondary source documents
  • Create erasure and blackout poetry utilizing primary and secondary source documents
  • Examine the historical development of the sources as living documents
  • Make connections between the language and themes in poetry as it relates to students
  • Build cross curricular competencies as students explore history and poetry

Teaching Strategies

This unit will require students to develop and make use of critical listening, reading and thinking abilities as we examine a wide range of poetry, lyrics, primary sources, and more in an effort to gain a supplemental or newfound understanding of the histories, both apparent and hidden, in the founding documents of American government and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While the poems are endlessly interpretive and tell their own unique stories, they can enhance the learning of students in the social studies classroom by engaging them in a way that trite readings never could. Students will participate in individual close readings, collaborative close readings, the creation of their own erasure poetry, and more as we delve into poetic works and a variety of primary source documents.

Critical Vocabulary

The poems in Zong! often use vocabulary specific to the text of Gregson v. Gilbert, which may be foreign to some students. Luckily, much of this vocabulary is identified at the end of the anthology, and in many cases is aligned with vocabulary terms traditionally taught in U.S. History classes. To that end, it is imperative that the vocabulary be front-loaded for students to ensure a thorough understanding once the close readings begin. This will also build a familiarity and strong foundation for when they begin to create their own erasures.

Collaborative Close Reading

Despite their sometimes-short-form, poems can be endlessly complex and open to different understandings. To that end, the collaborative close reading serves as a wonderful strategy to get a large group to collectively suss out different interpretations of a given piece. Each member of the group is assigned a stanza, line, or several words from a poem – in some cases, even just one word from the poem. The group then reads through the poem, stopping to offer analyses of each stanza, line, word, etc. Organic discussions are spurred from the collaborative close reading, and it is far more generative than an individual analysis or a more traditional poetry reading.

Gallery Walk/Stations

In addition to the collaborative close readings that will occur throughout the course of this unit, gallery walks and station activities will also be utilized. A traditional gallery walk activity consists of about 6 stations posted around the room. These stations can either be posted on the walls, or set up at different desks or tables depending on the classroom layout. Students will be divided into groups, and each group will begin at a different station. Once the activity begins, students will have a fixed amount of time at each station, typically 5-7 minutes depending upon the class size. At these stations, the teacher can post poems, primary/secondary sources, text, images, etc. At the end of this unit, students will select one of their erasure or blackout poems to display in a student-curated gallery walk activity.


The jigsaw activity splits students into small groups, each with a different chunk of text. The texts can be smaller pieces of a whole text or document, or several documents on the same topic. Students review the documents in their groups and then reconvene to put the pieces together and form a complete understanding. When reconvening, this can either be done as a whole class, with each group sharing out while the rest of the class transcribes, or by rotating members of each group, with one student staying in place to act as the “expert” of their group. The jigsaw is especially useful when analyzing complex historical documents – especially multiple conflicting sources. Additionally, the jigsaw can be used to analyze several poems in small groups over the course of a single class period.


Another grouping strategy, think-pair-share can be a useful tool in getting students to engage with a text through dialogue, brainstorming and reflection. Students can be placed in pairs or in small groups. The teacher will ask students a specific question in order to get them to think about what they know or have learned about a topic. Students are then “paired” with a peer or in a small group. Students will then share their thoughts with their partner or a small group. The dialogue is then expanded to the entire class as a means of generating discussion.

Classroom Activities

Lesson One: Zong! and Critical Vocabulary

Objectives: Students will be able to define and critically examine the vocabulary terms that will appear in Zong! and elsewhere throughout the unit. After reviewing the terms, students will begin to analyze poems from Zong! and will encounter erasure poetry for the first time.

Materials and Resources:

Vocabulary terms: Slaves, property, underwriter, sustenance, vessel, provisions, evidence, preservation, circumstance, voyage, verdict, policy



  • Zong! #3
  • Zong! #5
  • Zong! #9
  • Zong! #19
  • Zong! #20
  • Zong! #26

Text of Gregson v. Gilbert: available in full in the back of Zong! or online  in PDF form at

Step One: Explain that the purpose of this lesson is to develop a competency with the vocabulary terms that will form the backbone of Zong! Students will also learn about the Zong Massacre as it relates to the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The entire lesson will span the course of multiple class periods, as the vocabulary and ensuing discussion on the historical background will take a significant portion of the first class, with the remaining classes dedicated largely to the poetry.

Step Two: Ask students to list everything they know about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. After 5 minutes, have them pair up with a partner or in a small group. Following the group discussions, ask students to share out their responses, writing them on the board at the front of the room. As a follow-up, ask the class if a person can be held as property, and if a price can be put on a human life. This can also be done as a think-pair-share. Explain that the next series of lessons will focus on the story of the Zong Massacre, and how it relates to and represents the brutal history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Step Three: Display PowerPoint or Google Slides for the vocabulary terms at the front of the room. Discuss the importance of learning these words, as students may not have encountered them before, and they are critical to the ensuing activities. Teachers may have students transcribe the vocabulary based on the individual needs of the students; teacher-created guided notes, graphic organizers, and study guides are all acceptable methods of transcription. Have students review the vocabulary terms for homework by making notecards or using study apps such as Quizlet.

Step Four: Play selected portions of Cross Cultural Poetics Episode 341. In this episode, Philip discusses the history of the Zong Massacre, the importance of Gregson v. Gilbert in legal scholarship, and its connection to language and literature. This episode serves as a great way to get students invested in the connection between a historical document and the poetry it was used to create.

Step Five: Distribute copies of Zong! #3. For a first reading, play the PennSound audio of M. NourbeSe Philip reading it. Afterward, read the poem along with students. Ask the class to describe the structure of the poem. Why are the words arranged in such an unconventional format? After having them discuss their ideas, explain that this type of poem is called an erasure, and is created by taking an existing text and erasing all but the words the poet wishes to write a poem with.

Step Six: Distribute copies of Zong! #5. The audio for the reading can be utilized once again. This time, however, conduct the collaborative close reading strategy with the class. Assign each student in the class one word from the poem. One by one, have each student share their interpretation of the word as it relates to the poem, building on the thoughts that precede each statement. Guide the students’ reading of the poem by verbally filling in the details of the Zong Massacre as it is discussed in the book. At this point, the remaining selected works from Zong! can be analyzed over the next several classes, schedule permitting.

Step Seven: Distribute copies of Gregson v. Gilbert. Explain to students that this is a legal document that not only describes the case of the Zong Massacre, but served as the inspiration and core text for the poems that have been analyzed thus far. Referencing the warm up questions from earlier, explain the story of the Zong Massacre, paying particular attention to the intent of the captain and crew to claim the insurance money for the slaves by throwing them overboard to drown.

Step Eight: As an independent activity, devote a considerable portion of class time to allow students to create their own erasure poems from the text of Gregson v. Gilbert. Model the process of creating an erasure by showing the importance of an individual close reading of the document, with an emphasis on rereading. Also encourage the students to create multiple drafts of the poem, drawing attention to the fact that Zong! contains a considerable number of erasure poems created from the text, many more than were covered in the course of this lesson.

Lesson Two: A Humument and Blackout Poetry

Objectives: Students will learn the history of A Humument, learning how the poet contributes to the living history of a document. Students will also encounter blackout poetry and perform close readings via a jigsaw activity.

Materials and Resources:

Text: Excerpts from A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock

Optional Audio: Tom Phillips Reads from A Humument USB Card,

Art Supplies:

  • Crayons
  • Markers
  • Colored pencils
  • Optionally, paints and paintbrushes


  • Ornament
  • Erne
  • Our Excellent Exodus
  • We Start Tomorrow

Step One: As a follow-up to the previous lessons, ask students to share their erasures. Promote discussion by asking them what their thoughts were about creating an original poem from an existing text. Explain that there is a long history of erasure poetry as a medium, and there is another similar type that differs slightly in style, called blackout poetry.

Step Two: Provide students with a brief overview of A Humument. The history of the work spans a period of over 50 years, beginning in 1966. Since its inception, the collection has spanned six volumes, and has become something of a living document. Make a clear connection to students that the same can be done with any document, historical or otherwise.

Step Three: Distribute copies of Ornament. At this point, the optional use of the USB card audio may be employed for a first or second reading. After reading the poem, ask students to reflect on the similarities and differences between erasure poetry and blackout poetry. Some obvious similarities that arise include both being a form of found poetry, both utilizing existing texts, and both removing a portion of the text to create an original poem. Differences include, but are not limited to, the method of erasing versus blacking out the text, the use of color and artwork, and the content of the poems.

Step Four: After dividing students into groups, distribute copies of St. Erne, Our Excellent Exodus and We Start Tomorrow. Depending on the size of each class, 2 groups may each receive a copy of the same poem. Alternatively, additional poems can be taken from A Humument at the teacher’s discretion. Facilitate a collaborative close reading among each of the small groups, periodically checking in on them. One student from each group should be selected as the “expert.” The experts will remain in their seats as the members from the other groups rotate around the room. The rotating members will conduct a collaborative close reading of the other poems with the guidance of the expert in each group.

Step Five: Distribute copies of various excerpts from A Human Document. As an independent activity, students will have the opportunity to create their own blackout poetry as Tom Phillips did with A Humument. As with the previous lesson, have students create multiple drafts, both revising and recreating the poems with new phrasings and meanings.

Lesson Three: Tracy K. Smith and Historical Erasure

Objectives: Students will analyze erasure poetry created using the Declaration of Independence and 19th-century correspondences concerning slavery, setting a foundation for the culminating activities in the unit.

Materials and Resources:


  • The Declaration of Independence
  • Excerpts from Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place, A Plantation Epic

Audio: Tracy K. Smith, Declaration


  • Declaration
  • The Greatest Personal Privation
  • Unwritten

Step One: As a warm up activity, ask students what a historical document can tell the reader. Many students will posit that documents can tell us how people thought, acted, spoke, felt, etc. at the time it was written. Ask students if the history a document tells concludes once it is finished being written, or if that history could take shape in new ways. Explain that as has been observed throughout the unit, erasure and blackout poetry can contribute to the living history of these documents by creating something new from the existing text. Another poet doing this type of work is Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States.

Step Two: Distribute copies of Declaration and play the audio of Tracy K. Smith’s reading during either a first or second reading of the poem. As a class, perform a collaborative close reading of the poem. Ask the class if they have any idea as to where this poem might have come from. Explain that Smith used the text from the Declaration of Independence to create this erasure, thus contributing to the living history of the document. The class will now do the same.

Step Three: Pass out copies of the text of the Declaration of Independence. Give multiple copies to each student. Either by hand or using the text and whiteout, facilitate the creation of erasure poems using the text. While Declaration uses the latter portion of the original primary source, the list of grievances against King George, encourage students to use the preamble as well as grievances. As always, make sure that students create multiple drafts, revising and reimagining along the way.

Step Four: As an independent activity, distribute copies of The Greatest Personal Privation and Unwritten. Students should select a poem, perform a close reading of their own, and then as homework create an erasure using teacher-curated excerpts from Dwelling Place. Smith used the letters cited in this book to create her erasures, and now the students can too. Students should be prepared to discuss their poems during the following class period.

Lesson Five: Gallery Walk: Erasure & Blackout Poetry

Materials and Resources:


  • Stamp Act. March 22, 1765
  • Quartering Act. March 24, 1765
  • New York Sons of Liberty Resolutions on Tea. November 29, 1773
  • Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. July 6, 1775.
  • Shay’s Rebellion. 1786
  • Washington’s First Inaugural Address. April 30, 1789.

*Each text is presented in full in Commager’s Documents of American History.

Art Supplies:

  • Crayons
  • Markers
  • Colored pencils
  • Construction paper
  • Large chart paper, preferably with adhesive
  • Optionally, paints and paintbrushes

Step One: As part of the introduction to the culminating activity in the unit, explain to students that they will be using their newfound knowledge of erasure and blackout poetry to curate and participate in a gallery walk. Each student-created poem will be posted at stations around the room. The station will consist of either a construction-paper-backed erasure/blackout poem on a desk or table, or centered on a piece of chart paper posted on the wall.

Step Two: Display the list of available primary source documents that students can use to create their poems. Students will have approximately half the class period to create their pieces. Students should utilize the thought processes and skills they have acquired throughout the unit in their analysis and creation of erasure and blackout poems. After distributing the primary sources for students to work with, circulate the room and offer assistance and feedback as required.

Step Three: As students finish their poems, assist them with creating the stations around the room. Depending on space, the stations can be set up at desks and tables, or posted on the wall, backed by chart paper. Around the halfway point in class, instruct students to stand at their stations. When the gallery walk begins, have students rotate to one of the stations next to theirs. Explain that students should spend time at each station before the activity ends. Teachers may choose to have students rotate based on a timer, or display one timer for the entire gallery walk, with the condition that students must reach each station before the activity ends.

Step Four: As each student approaches a station, they should write a few thoughts on the piece in the space provided. For poems posted on the wall, students can write in the margins of the chart paper. If poems are stationed on desks, there should be another sheet for students to write their commentary. The goal of the stations activity is for students to display their work in a sort of art gallery, just as poets like Tom Phillips have done.

Step Five: When the stations activity has ended, invite students to return to their own station to read over the commentary. As closure, host a discussion on how students felt the activity went, what it was like to put their work on display, and anything they might do differently in the future. Students may also write a reflection on their experiences with analyzing primary source documents by creating poetry versus the more conventional means of analysis.


Clarke, Erskine. Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic. Yale University Press, 2005.

The book that served as inspiration and substance for Tracy K. Smith’s The Greatest Personal Priviation and Unwritten, this book offers a poignant portrait of the American slaveholding South. It provides many primary source documents that could be used for inspiration in student-created poetry.

Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1973.

An exhaustive collection of many important primary source documents in American History. This book serves as a fantastic resource to use for classroom activities, as there are boundless sources to utilize in class. Ideally the sources pulled from this book would have been referenced in history class prior to this unit, so students can focus on using them to create erasure and blackout poetry.

Eve, Martin Paul. “Reading Redaction: Symptomatic Metadata,

Erasure Poetry, and Mark Blacklock’s I’m Jack,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 2019.

Eve’s article discusses the utility of erasure poetry in exploring a document. Readers must act as a detective, searching for meanings beneath the original intent of a text.

Filreis, Al. “On the Pedagogy of Close Reading. Coursera,

Al is an expert on poetry and pioneered the collaborative close reading. This unit utilizes the collaborative close read as a central technique in the teaching of poetry, and thus is anchored in the information discussed in this video.

MacDonald, Travis. “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics.” Jacket Magazine, 2009.

While the history of erasure poetry may be relatively brief, this article does a great job of summarizing the key points for a newcomer to this form of found poetry.

Naylor, Amanda and Audrey B. Wood. Teaching Poetry: Reading and Responding to Poetry in the Secondary Classroom. Routledge Publishing, 2012.

An excellent resource for teachers who have little experience with teaching poetry, or for veterans who may be looking for fresh ideas. This book takes an active approach to teaching poetry in the high school classroom, and should assist with classes that may be unresponsive.

Philip, M. NourbeSe Zong! Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

One of the seminal texts for this unit, Zong! is an indispensable resource for teaching erasure poetry using historical documents. It includes a glossary of terms in the back of the book, explanations of the author’s processes for writing the poems contained within, and the full text of Gregson v. Gilbert, the legal document from which these poems were created.

Phillips, Tom. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Final Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Tom Phillips began A Humument in 1966, and completed the sixth and final edition in 2016. The book is a collection of over 300 blackout poems, beautifully rendered in full color. Phillips created the poems using the text of a relatively obscure Victorian novel, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. The Humument website contains many other resources, but the book is wonderful on its own merits.

Smith, Tracy K. Wade in The Water. Graywolf Press, 2018.

Tracy K. Smith’s Declaration served as the main inspiration for this unit. While Smith wrote a number of erasure poems for the book, there are also many more traditionally formatted poems as well.

Somers, Albert B. Teaching Poetry in High School. National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.

A tried and true guide to teaching poetry in the high school classroom, this book is rife with strategies and anecdotes centered around successfully implementing poetry in secondary schools. Helpful for those who have little experience with teaching poetry, and are looking for a solid foundation to get started.

Wilkinson, Joshua Marie. Poets on Teaching: a Sourcebook. University of Iowa Press, 2010.

A number of essays by poets about teaching poetry. The essays include teaching poetry generally, teaching specific poems, teaching specific types of poems and much more. A worthy read for anyone looking to compare their own experience with teaching poetry to that of others.


Selected Poems

Tom Phillips, A Humument

  • Ornament
  • Erne
  • Our Excellent Exodus
  • We Start Tomorrow

Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water

M. NourbeSe Philip, Zong!

  • Zong! #3
  • Zong! #5
  • Zong! #9
  • Zong! #19
  • Zong! #20
  • Zong! #26

Live readings for everything found in Zong! can be accessed at this link:


The Core Curriculum of the School District of Philadelphia is aligned to the Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Standards for History. These standards support instruction and development of content knowledge related to Historical Analysis and Skills Development, United States History and World History. The goal of this unit is to encompass these topics and more as we explore the history of poetry, art, and culture while incorporating primary source documents from the Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary period.

Arts and Humanities:

9.2 Historical and Cultural Contexts

9.2.3.A Explain the historical, cultural, and social context of an individual work in the


9.2.3.B Relate works in the arts chronologically to historical events.

9.2.3.C Relate works in the arts to varying styles and genre and to the periods in which

they were created.

9.2.3.D Analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.

9.2.3.E Analyze how historical events and culture impact forms, techniques and purposes

of works in the arts.

9.2.3.F Know and apply appropriate vocabulary used between social studies and the arts

and humanities.

9.2.3.G Relate works in the arts to geographic regions.

9.2.3.J Identify, explain and analyze historical and cultural differences as they relate to

works in the arts.

9.2.3.K Identify, explain and analyze traditions as they relate to works in the arts.

English Language Arts:

9–10.F Analyze how words and phrases shape meaning and tone in texts.

9–10.I Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, including how they address related themes and concepts.

9–10.J Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college- and career-readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

9–10.E Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it, and manipulate time create an effect.

9–10.F Analyze how words and phrases shape meaning and tone in texts.