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4 Poems for Addressing Identity

Teaching poetry--from Gwendolyn Brooks to Tupac--that inspires students to explore who they are

Zora Howard

By Jesska Daugherty

April 18, 2014

1. “Biracial Hair,” by Zora Howard

This is the first poem I teach in the Poet Warriors unit developed by TFA alum Emily Southerton. Listening to Howard perform this poem is powerful and the message is accessible, relevant, and thought-provoking. Howard began writing poetry at age 13, became a well-known poet, and attended Yale University. Her story teaches students that they can become successful leaders and change-makers through writing.

“Students’ favorite line: “I’m not a f*cking cookie.””


2. “Liberty Needs Glasses,” by Tupac Shakur 

Although “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” is more popular, the message of “Liberty Needs Glasses” is arguably stronger. In terms of curriculum, this poem works for teaching personification, simile, and allusion. This poem also ties into conversations about justice and racism. Tupac’s verse almost reads like text messages, but with strong word choices and deep meaning. His “In the Event of My Demise” and other poems are also excellent for students.

“Memorable lines: “I mean really if anyone valued life/and cared about the masses/theyd take em both 2 pen optical/and get 2 pair of glasses””

3. “A Song in the Front Yard,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

I love hearing Gwendolyn Brooks read “We Real Cool,” and always play it for my class. However, Brooks’ exasperation over how textbook companies ignore her larger repertoire of poetry led me to teach “A Song in the Front Yard.” The poem works well for children and teenagers who long to experience new things, have overprotective parents, or just want to be “bad.” Guilty confession: The first time I read this poem I started singing Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” Brooks says it better.

“Memorable lines:  I want a peek at the back/Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows/A girl gets sick of a rose.””

4. Brave New Voices

Performance poetry is just too good not to teach. Brave New Voices, a competition for youth poetry teams, shares a lot of its videos on YouTube. Here are a couple favorites:

  • 2013 DC Youth Slam Team: This is a team poem that combines poetry and song. I love sharing unique poetic forms with students to show how dynamic writing can be. This poem is a perfect example of young people who are poet warriors. The teens repeatedly discuss the “war” of injustice in their city.
  • Love Letter to Albuquerque Public Schools,” by Miguel Figueroa, Reed Bobroff, Olivia Gatwood, and Khalid Binsunni: The topic of this poem is standardized testing. It’s a good stand-alone poem, but could also be used to talk about the achievement gap and taking responsibility for your own education.

A final spoken-word note: I love Sarah Kay’s Ted Talk on the subject, which is great for higher grade levels.