Theme for English B

The other day a teacher friend who is in a new classroom setting wrote me and asked about a lesson that I teach using Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B.” This multi-layered poem challenges students and provides an interesting framework for an intro writing assignment.

Here is the lesson that I shared with her:

First we read it out loud twice. Together we define some key terms, places, names together. I sometimes have students do a quick one minute sketch of an image that is in their mind after the first read. They share what they drew out loud briefly before we read hear the poem again.

As groups I have them mark up their poem pages (they can mark ideas, images, meaning, of different sections of the poem). They need to have at least eight comments or questions on their page by the time we are ready to talk.

Then we share insights about the poem as a whole class and I put notes on the board that they copy onto their pages.

I tell them they are to write their own “English B” piece. I say there is no way to do this wrong if it is “true to them.” The next day people read their pieces out loud.

I continue to use this poem and the writing assignment because it begins to establish a climate of writing where risk and truth-telling are encouraged. I do the assignment along with them, share my piece out loud along with them, and like them, feel nervous about how my piece will be received by others.

Here is the first part of my “Theme for English 2” piece that I wrote and shared with the class in 2011:

It’s September. 2011.

Another school year begins.

I rise early, before the rest of my house.

Slipping through the house, I clean up remnants from the day before.

As I begin to prepare myself, others rise.

Nati comes down from the second floor, blankie in hand.

Shortly after I hear a different voice at the top of the stairs, “Daddy?”

Her footsteps pound loudly, beyond her size.

After reading them a book on the couch and serving breakfast

I am on my way.

Pedals turn, I dodge cars and holes looking to entrap my wheels.

My head is on the future.

What will I bring to this year? Who will be the people I will spend my days with?

When I was a student this time of year felt like a wait.

It was others who determined what I did…

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