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Imagery in Action

Author: Donna L. Jones


University City High School

Year: 2009

Keywords: African American literature, african american poetry, Literature, poetry

School Subject(s): African American Literature, English, Literature, Poetry, Writing

The unit “Imagery in Action” is so entitled since it intends to address the theme of activism, by way of focusing primarily on the literary devices of imagery used in literature. It is an expansion of the School District of Philadelphia’s English 3 unit, entitled “Civil Disobedience.” The expansion involves the inclusion of poetry, specifically, African American poetry. The poetry presented here surrounds the themes that are presented by the textbook’s selections.

Example lessons are given that utilize a variety of strategies. Suggested poems are presented with the lessons to be used with each of the text’s selected readings by Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Full Unit Text

This unit begins with, and then weaves throughout, a variety of poetry written by African Americans, into the School District of Philadelphia’s English 3 “Civil Disobedience” unit. This genre of poetry will broaden the concept to include illustrative examples of the broader topics and ideas presented in this unit. Further inclusion of African American writers of great renown provides a more balanced selection of curricular reading. Although literacy and thinking skills are weakening throughout the nation’s population of youth, students with special needs face the greatest challenges, especially in urban, comprehensive school settings. Nonetheless, these students are expected to meet the same objectives, utilizing the same texts as their non-disabled counterparts. This unit seeks to provide the inclusion of poetry containing somewhat less challenging vocabulary, yet with equal richness of themes, styles and literary devices. The overarching goals are to provide an understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of literature, including poetry, as one of history’s most effective means of social activism. To this end, the unit will focus primarily on the imagery gleaned from the poetry presented.


The School District of Philadelphia’s English 3 curriculum has included a unit entitled “The Dissenters”, which highlights the writings of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King in the Elements of Literature’s (fifth course) “Civil Disobedience” unit. These giants provide students with rich ideas and literary excellence across genres, with speeches, essays and letters. Their activism spanned eras, as well as involvement of different groups of people. The next step is for students to be shown other examples of literature used as social activism which may also be tied to contemporary issues. Additionally, this unit can be made more full and engaging with the inclusion of poetry.
African American poets have provided us with many poems that exemplify a different form of social activism. The connection of this genre will not only aid in the comprehension of the concept, but will present other perspectives along this theme, and fill in needed gaps. Students will be able to view the use of poetry as a viable means of civil disobedience. Today’s high school students will find greater relevance in this study and inclusion of African American poetry. Students will be able to compare and contrast themes of action or dissent.
The curriculum requires students to read and appreciate a variety of genres, learn, analyze and use the numerous literary devices employed by writers, as well as develop speaking and listening skills. Rigorous standards and curriculum are necessary to prepare students for 21st century competition. Educators must be mindful as well, of the interest and ability levels of all of today’s young people in order to ensure that these rigorous curricular studies are indeed being comprehended and appreciated, hopefully for future utilization.


The objectives of this unit coincide and reflect the objectives of the state’s standards. These language arts standards are subdivided by Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, and Research, and this unit involves each of these components. The unit proposes to expand one of the given units provided in the Philadelphia School District’s “scheduling and planning timeline,” – to incorporate poetry. Students are challenged by the standards to critically read and analyze literature. The poetry included here, all by African American writers, is chosen for the purpose of analyzing theme, purpose and imagery. Students will read poetry, study its devices, and conduct research to write about and present unit projects.
Students will read and listen to poems surrounding the theme of injustice prior to, and following the reading of Henry David Thoreau’s speech, Resistance to Civil Government. While students will be asked to focus on the imagery created by the paradoxes in this speech, such as “That government is best which governs not at all.” and “I felt as if I alone, of all my townsmen had paid my tax,” they will be guided to focus on the imagery created in the poetry. Students will read and listen to poems surrounding the theme of adopting a resistant mentality prior to, and following the reading of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s speech, On Nonviolent Resistance. Gandhi makes it clear in this essay why and how they “will never comply with your arbitrary laws,” as he explains that it takes two hands to clap, and two parties to fight. This unit will ask students to explore the imagery given with Gandhi’s metaphors, such as, “Shower what sufferings you like; we will calmly endure all and not hurt a hair on your body.” They will as well, analyze the images in related poems. Students also will read and listen to poems surrounding the theme of dealing with racial discrimination prior to, and following the reading of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. As students examine King’s use of imagery in his description of “the rabid segregationist” and “all types of conniving methods used,” they will likewise examine poets’ illustrative skills. The students will be guided to analyze the poets’ themes, and purposes of given poems. They will additionally relate these themes with the related historical and social contexts.
Imagery is defined as “the use of language to evoke a picture or a concrete sensation of a person, a thing, a place, or an experience” in the student text, Holt Elements of Literature. Poets creatively make use of many figurative language devices in their poems to excite the senses. These devices, particularly, hyperbole, metaphor, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, objectification, personification, and simile will be highlighted for students to examine and appreciate. The students will read to contrast and make comparisons of these poetic devices, with the purpose of making connections to the writers’ themes.
Students will write in response to the poetry presented. They will be asked to write in a variety of formats in so doing. Journal entry, essay, editorial, poem, letter, biographical sketch, advertisement, and invitation writing will be assigned.
Students will research information about African American poets and their writings. They will utilize resources of provided books and websites. Their research, as well as class assignments, will be conducted mostly for the purpose of practice and gathering information and ideas for the culminating project.


Large classroom display posters will be utilized for the duration of the unit. “POETRY” and “ACTIVISM” posters will be used as acronyms that will constantly display key terms and ideas associated with poetry. Letters in both of these focus words will be part of, if not the beginnings of key terms and ideas, as shown in the examples below.
P oet (parallelism, personification) A lliteration (allusion, assonance)
O nomatopoeia (oxymoron) C onflict (call & response
E pigram T heme
T one I rony (Iambic )
R hythm (rhyme) V erse
imager Y I nversion
S imile (stanza, symbol, style)
M etaphor (meter)

Journal writing will be employed throughout the unit. Here, pre-class writing prompts may be given as introductions to concepts, historical periods, or social issues. This will be one means of eliciting prior knowledge, and/ or personal feelings. The literature journal will be used additionally for writing in response to the literature. Personal reflections towards a class ending are important for students, especially when there is a presence of difficulties with long and short term retention. Small and large group discussions will be an essential part of this unit.

The primacy-recency effect (Sousa 2003) of learning states that people will remember most, that which is stated first in a lesson or lecture. This is the primacy portion. Learners will remember next that which was presented last in the lecture or lesson. This is the recency portion. Poetry recitation, via teacher, student, or technology, will be done at the start and conclusion of each lesson to capitalize on this premise.
Graphic organizers and matrices will be utilized by the class to assist readers in organizing important ideas for the purpose of comparing, contrasting, and of course, comprehension. Using split-screen notes is an excellent means for students to direct their focus on a text being read. Upon sharing these notes with peers in the class, the class can then choose words, phrases, and diagram portions from the entire group that best represents the text for a class display. Focus might be narrowed to a particular focus, such as metaphors, similes or setting. Students will be strongly encouraged by modeling and reminders, to use highlighters or highlighter tape while reading or discussing text, as well as to make notations onto and about a particular text.
Several strategies to enhance comprehension will be used. Frequent repetition and practice with recognizing and utilizing terms and concepts is one of the intentional components of this unit. Examples of such strategies follow.

The RAFT summarization strategy will be used as a means to apply recently acquired knowledge, as well as to practice writing and thinking skills. Using this strategy, students will need to choose from given lists for the role (R), audience (A), format (F), and time (T) of the writing piece. For instance, one might choose the role of Langston Hughes to write to the School Reform Commission (A) a proposal to change poetry from an elective to a core subject (f) in the year 2009 (T).
A Synectic Summary activity is a wonderful tool for small group collaborations to help process a topic under study. This technique can allow for the strengths of all group members to be put into use. I would provide several examples and whole class brainstorming situations prior to assigning the matrix to students. Students might even benefit from a competitive challenge, such as a prize for the group with the most squares completed. The use of this strategy in this unit will be to practice with literary devices. For example, following the reading of Remembering Nat Turner, by Sterling A. Brown, when given a question, such as “How was the memory of Nat Turner like parts of a kitchen,” student pairs (or teams) will be encouraged to create any number of similes, metaphors, and examples of personification and objectification. Students will supply these into given matrices containing parts of the kitchen (or other places or objects) for which to use in their creations.
Oven Sink
Table Refrigerator
Another strategy that will be utilized, is the “3, 2, 1” summarization activity. With this, students will be asked to name 3 of something (List three types of racial discrimination), 2 of another (Name two poems dealing with racial discrimination), and yet 1 of something else (Tell one reason why you feel it is unfair), all from the particular text or topic of the day. This strategy may be used for authors, poetic devices, or concepts, for example. It will be useful for homework, pre-class, review, games, lesson conclusions, and even a short quiz.
For independent reading and research while utilizing the computer, students will be able to make use of the Read Please application. This program, which reads aloud text on the screen, is valuable for low level readers, as it allows for the acquisition of immediate pronunciations that may be difficult.

By building lessons and assessments around inquiry, knowledge acquisition, problem solving, communication, and reflection, students will be given needed practices to provoke and promote thought. Therefore, the class should be presented with the final project assignment, as well as its corresponding evaluation rubric, within the initial phase of the unit. This unit plan involves two projects from which students may choose, according to their personal strengths and interests. Class participants, in groups of three (or four), will design, create, and present either a poetry slam event or a new museum. This unit intentionally limits the choice to expedite the students’ selection process. The events given from which to choose might just as easily include spoken word, debate, panel discussion, or all of the above. Likewise, the place created could be a poet’s house or restaurant.

Students will need to conduct research in the class, as well as outside of the class time to locate information about and writings by poets. They will have to make use of book resources, as well as computers to gain information from websites. Portions of the project will require computer applications, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PhotoShop, etc. The students are able to decide whether their projects will be in the more traditional forms, or in digital form.

Classroom Activities

Prior to beginning lessons for Thoreau’s essay, the following poem(s) will be read silently, and recited aloud.  To correspond with Thoreau’s essay, the poems presented here were selected with the theme of injustice in mind.


John Henrik Clarke

Who is Justice?  I would like to know.

Whosoever she is, I could love her so;

I could love her, though my race

So seldom looks upon her face.


In pairs, or groups of three, students will work to create an image of “Miss Justice” for Mr. Clarke.  Their task will be to create the face of justice, utilizing the letters J-U-S-T-I-C-E.  This activity will highlight and reinforce the idea of imagery created by a metaphor.  Spelling is indirectly practiced, as well.


For a Lady I Know

Countee Cullen

She even thinks that up in heaven

Her class lies late and snores,

While poor black cherubs rise at seven

To do celestial chores.


     After analyzing the form of this epigram poem, students will be given the task of writing one of their own.  They may choose to write a couplet or quatrain.  To aid those students with hesitancy at starting, a list of ideas may be provided with concepts, places, or adjectives, for example.  (See appendix)


My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land             

Lance Jeffers

My Blackness is the beauty of this land,

my blackness,

tender and strong, wounded and wise,

my blackness:

I, drawling black grandmother, smile muscular and sweet,

unstraightened white hair soon to grow in earth,

work-thickened hand thoughtful and gentle on grandson’s head,

my heart is bloody-razored by a million memories’ thrall:


remembering the crook-necked cracker who spat

on my naked body,

remembering the splintering of my son’s spirit

because he remembered to be proud

remembering the tragic eyes in my daughter’s

dark face when she learned her color’s meaning,


and my own dark rage a rusty knife with teeth to gnaw

my bowels,

my agony ripped loose by anguished shouts in Sunday’s

humble church,

my agony rainbowed to ecstasy when my feet oversoared

Montgomery’s slime,


ah, this hurt, this hate, this ecstasy before I die,

and all my love a strong cathedral!

My Blackness is the beauty of this land!


Lay this against my whiteness, this land!

Lay me, young Brutus stamping hard on the cat’s tail,

gutting the Indian, gouging the nigger,

booting Little Rock’s Minniejean Brown in the buttocks and boast,

my sharp white teeth derision-bared as I the conqueror crush!

Skyscraper-I, white hands burying God’s human clouds beneath

the dust!

Skyscraper-I, slim blond young Empire

thrusting up my loveless bayonet to rape the sky,

then shrink all my long body with filth and in the gutter lie

as lie I will to perfume this armpit garbage,

While I here standing black beside

wrench tears from which the lies would suck the salt

to make me more American than America…

But yet my love shall civilize this land,

this land’s salvation.


     As students re-examine this poem, they will be asked to locate words, phrases, or lines that appeal to the various senses.  These may be recorded in a chart either along the right side of the poem (as split screen notes), or on a separate sheet.

sight touch smell hearing taste  

Students will be asked to examine the poets’ use of devices, by way of a comparison chart, as shown on the examples below.  The charts may be devised for a single poem just as well as two or more.

Re-read the poems.  Highlight the use of rhyme and alliteration used in each.  Then record these examples in the comparison chart below.

  Poet Rhyme Alliteration Tone Theme
For a Lady I Know          
My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land          


Following the reading and lessons for Thoreau’s essay, the following poems will be read silently, and recited aloud.  This poem may be added to the first comparison chart, or compared with one other, or examined alone, as the teacher sees fit and time constraints allow.


  Poet Metaphors Inversion Tone Theme
My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land          



Maya Angelou

The gold of her promise

has never been mined


Her borders of justice

not clearly defined


Her crops of abundance

the fruit and the grain


Have not fed the hungry

nor eased the deep pain


Her proud declarations

are leaves on the wind


Her southern exposure

black death did befriend


Discover this country

dead centuries cry


Erect noble tablets

where none can decry


“She kills her bright future

and rapes for a sou


Then entraps her children

with legends untrue”


I beg you


Discover this country.


A Poem for Players

Al Young


Yes, they’ll let you play,

let you play third base or fender bass,

let you play Harrah’s Club or Shea Stadium


They’ll let you play

in a play anyway:  Shakespeare,

Ionesco, Bullins, Baraka, or Genet

only don’t get down too much

& don’t go getting too uppity


They’ll let you play,

oh yes, on the radio, stereo,

even on the video, Ojays,

O.J. Simpson, only please don’t stray

too far from your ghetto rodeo


They’ll let you be Satchmo,

they’ll let you be Diz,

they’ll let you be Romeo,

or star in The Wiz

but you gots  to remember that

that’s all there is


Oh, you can be a lawyer or a medico,

a well-briefcased executive with Texaco,

you can even get yourself hired, man,

to go teach Ulysses in Dublin, Ireland


They’ll let you play

so long as you don’t play around,

as long as you play it hot or cool,

as long as you don’t play down the blues

they’ll let you play in Playboy, Playgirl,

or the Amsterdam News


Finally they’ll let you play

politics if you don’t get in the way

the way some of us did and had to be

iced by conspiracy, international mystery


They’ll let you play anybody but you,

that’s pretty much what they will do


To analyze this poem’s message, students might engage in a 3-2-1 activity, where they will supply three responses to the first question, two to the next, and one to the last.  Each successive task requires deeper thought, where the first request is usually for a list or something literal, while the last is usually one of application or synthesis.  Teachers may refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy to ensure progression of tasks.

3-2-1 Activity

  • Identify 3 different ways “they” will let you play.
  • Explain 2 things that “players” should not do.
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with the speaker in the poem.

Journal writing prompts for pre-class and homework assignments provide opportunities for gauging prior knowledge, introducing themes, reflection, and constructed response writing practice.


  • Write about an incident in which you felt cheated, or when something unfair occurred to you or someone that you know.
  • Discuss the words used by Lance Jeffers that helped to create the tone of the poem. How did the poem’s tone affect your mood?
  • How has Maya Angelou characterized this country in America? Use at least two pieces of evidence from the poem.

Next, students will prepare to read and study Gandhi’s speech on nonviolent resistance.  They will first be introduced to the following poem and related activities.  To correspond with the messages given in this speech, the poems that are presented here were chosen with the theme of resistance in mind.

Blessed are Those Who Struggle

Suliaman El Hadi

Blessed are those who struggle

Oppression is worse than the grave

Better to die for a noble cause

than to live and die a slave


Blessed are those who courted death

Who offered their lives to give

Who dared to rebel, rather than serve

to die so that we might live


Blessed are those who took up arms

and dared to face our foes

Nat Turner, Vessey, Gabriel, Cinque

to mention a few names we know


Blessed are the memories of those who were there

at Harper’s Ferry Raid

Strong were their hearts, noble their cause

and great was the price they paid


Blessed are the voices of those who stood up

and cried out, Let us be free!

Douglass and Garvey and Sojourner Truth

Du Bois and Drew Ali


Blessed are the giants that we have loved

and lost to the bullet’s sting

like Malcolm and Medgar and the Panthers who fell

and Martin Luther King


and blessed are the bodies of those who were hung

from limbs of the sycamore tree

Who found end to their hope at the end of a rope

‘cause they dared to attempt to be free


Up through the years we’ve continued this fight

our liberty to attain

And though we have faced insurmountable odds

yet the will to resist remains


Blessed are the spirits of those who have died

in the prisons all over the land

who committed one sin, they stood up like men

and got iced for just being a man


Blessed all of you who will join with us now

in this struggle of life and death

so that freedom and peace will be more than a word

to the offspring that we have left.


Hadi’s poem is written in ten quatrains with an abcb rhyme scheme.  The quatrains of this poem are hymnal, written in iambics, where lines1 and 3 are tetrameter and lines 2 and 4 are trimester.  He makes use of slant rhyme almost half as much as exact rhyme.  As with most hymnal quatrain poems, it lends itself greatly to voice recitation and song.

Students will read the poem while listening to the recording of it from The Last Poets’ album.  Students will then choose or be given one stanza to recite.  Following a couple of minutes to practice, the class will recite the poem, with each stanza from a different pupil.  The youngsters will then be charged with locating images from the internet corresponding with their chosen/ given stanza during the next computer session.  Pictures and video clips can be saved in imovie and iphoto.  Each 10 second video clip will be streamed together and combined with student recitation over the music/ beat of their collective choosing.

The class will receive mini lessons on end rhyme and quatrain writing.  They will be asked to write at least one quatrain about a personal “oppression.”  Suggestions may include __________ class, brussel sprouts, dishes, little bother/ sister, and weed, to name a few.  Students may use the interactive website (, as well to complete this task, where they will be given a form and helpful prompts for each line.

Following the reading and lessons surrounding Gandhi’s On Nonviolent Resistance speech, students will be given the following poem(s) to read.  Related activities follow for practice and reinforcement of metaphors.

Speech to the Young/ Speech to the Progress-Toward

            Gwendolyn  Brooks

Say to them,

say to the down-keepers,

the sun-slappers,

the self-soilers,

the harmony-hushers,

“Even if you are not ready for day

it cannot always be night.”

You will be right.

For that is the hard home-run.


Live not for battles won.

Live not for the end-of–the-song.

Live in the along.


Ms. Brooks makes clever use of metaphors in the above poem.  To help students stretch their creative thinking with writing metaphors, they will engage in a “Synectic Summary” activity.  They will be given sheets with the question, “How is an oppressor like a car?” or “How    is an activist like a video game?” Given also a matrix with suggested parts, students will

be asked to supply a sentence of explanation into each section.

Steering wheel   Engine

                        Trunk             Windshield


The next step of this lesson is for students to formulate metaphor couplets.  They will use these comparison ideas to create metaphors in the first line, and explain why in the second.  Frameworks may be given to assist students, such as with the following couplet:

_____ is a _____                     Activism is a steering wheel

It (Does what?)                       It leads you to where you’re going


Next, students will prepare to read and study Dr. King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.  They will first be introduced to the following poem and related activities.  They were chosen for the theme of racial prejudice and discrimination, to correspond to Dr. King’s letter.

from Who Look at Me

     June Jordan

Who see the block we face

the thousand miles of solid alabaster space

inscribed keep off keep out don’t touch

and Wait Some More for Half as Much?


What does the “block” symbolize?  What would such solid alabaster look like?  Students will work individually, or in small groups to create drawings and inscriptions lining this space of which Jordon speaks.

Following the reading and study lessons for the Dr. King letter, students will read the following poem.

    Strong Men

Sterling A. Brown

They dragged you from homeland,

They chained you in coffles,

They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,

They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.


They broke you in like oxen,

They scourged you,

They banded you,

They made your women breeders,

They swelled your numbers with bastards….

They taught you the religion they disgraced.


You sang:

    Keep a-inchin’ along

    Lak a po’ inch worm….


You sang:

    Bye and bye

    I’m gonna lay down dis heaby load….


You sang:

    Walk togedder, chillen,

    Dontcha git weary….

      The strong men keep a-comin’ on

The strong men get stronger.


They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said—Drive so much before sundown.


You sang:

    Ain’t no hammah

    In dis lan’,

    Strikes lak mine, bebby,

    Strikes lak mine.

They cooped you in their kitchens,

They penned you in their factories,

They gave you the jobs that they were too good for,

They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves

By shunting dirt and misery to you.


You sang:

    Me an’ muh baby gonna shine shine

    Me an’ muh baby gonna shine.


The strong men keep a-comin’ on

The strong men git stronger….

They bought off some of your leaders

You stumbled, as blind men will….

They coaxed you, unwontedly soft-voiced….

You followed a way.

Then laughed as usual.


They heard the laugh and wondered;


Unadmitting a deeper terror….

      The strong men keep a-comin’ on

Gittin’ stronger….


What, from the slums

Where they have hemmed you,

What, from the tiny huts

They could not keep you from—

What reaches them

Making them ill at ease, fearful?

Today they shout prohibition at you

“Thou shalt not this”

“Thou shalt not that”

“Reserved for whites only”

You laugh.


One thing they cannot prohibit—

      The strong men…coming on

The strong men gittin stronger.

Strong men….



This poem, Strong Men, echoes the rhythms of song- both blues and Negro spirituals.  Perhaps, one or two recordings can be played for the class before reading this poem.  Students will be asked to identify and highlight the lines of the poem indicated as what the strong men sang.  They should enjoy reciting this poem with the highlighted lines sung.  Groups of 3-4 students will be given time to practice and plan a group recitation of the poem.  They must decide who and how each stanza of the poem will be read or sung.

Students will also be asked to complete a RAFT writing activity for this poem.  They will first need to choose a role (strong man, “them,” speaker), an audience, a format (poem, letter, diary entry), and a time period (present, future, 1940). They will then write the piece in response to the poem.

Teachers may choose to substitute the poems shown here for ones more suited to their needs or preferences.  A brief selection of other possible poems may be found in the appendix.

Following the above lessons, students will be given the task of completing a culminating project.  The final project must surround either one theme or one poet presented throughout the unit.  Included in each student project, should be original work from at least 3 different literary genres.  Their work may be in response to poetry or poets, or following styles.  The teacher should provide as many possibilities and examples as possible.  The presentation of their projects may be displayed on poster board, or by utilizing any computer application available, such as iMovie or PowerPoint.

Students will require time and resources for researching, as well as for creating this final project.

A few examples for student choices follow:

  • A letter to a poet
  • A letter from one poet to another poet
  • An article or editorial highlighting a poet
  • An autobiographical poem
  • Diary entries
  • Video recitation of a poem set to music
  • slide show of related scenes as backdrop to poem recitation
  • Comic book of a poet’s life
  • A poet’s resume