Taking a Perspective with Poetry

Helping students to connect in meaningful ways to history is an important goal of literacy programs. One approach to making connections is by taking on the perspectives of people in history. In collaborations between the library, language arts, and history departments, students’ history research was enriched by creating perspective poems. Here are a few examples.

Colonial Williamsburg Perspective Poems
In preparation for a seventh grade field trip to Colonial Williamsburg, students used videos of historic interpreters to look closely and add details and observations on a note taking template. These details were then incorporated in a perspective poem. During a writing workshop, poet and author Deborah DEEP Mouton challenged students to take on an unusual point of view for their poem. One student wrote about an enslaved person working in a print shop and pondering if words like “freedom” professed in these colonial broadsides would ever change the plight of enslaved Blacks. Another student took on the perspective of a tailor’s pattern and mused, “even if the fabric is the same, the story of the customer will be cut different ways.”

National Monuments and Perspective Poems
Poet Deborah DEEP Mouton also worked with eighth graders to develop a perspective poem reflecting emotions and points of view of a national monument. Students will be traveling to Washington, D.C., and the events surrounding monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Arlington Cemetery provide rich historical and personal connections. Mouton used several approaches to engage students in the act of writing. Some groups were asked to distill the most important words and ideas from their poem into a six word story (such as Hemingway’s famous six word story: baby shoes for sale, never worn). See if you can guess the National Monuments for these Six Word Stories written by eighth graders:

In another writing workshop strategy, students paired up, brainstormed main ideas on an important image for their national monument, and then separated to write individually. Then, the student partners came back together to pull their best lines into a combined poem that was performed aloud for classmates. Students enjoyed the opportunity for collaboration and were surprised and pleased with their collaborative poems.

Stepping in to empathize with the perspectives of people and stepping back to evaluate the events are important steps in engaging students with history. These approaches to creating perspective poems enriched students’ understanding and provided them a creative way to communicate their insights.

*Note to readers. The original blog posting included an example from a Holocaust topic. Given the brevity of this article format, this serious topic was not presented with sufficient discussion to accurately represent the student’s work or classroom discussions surrounding the research. This article has been revised in respect for this historical event and those who suffered.

2 thoughts on “Taking a Perspective with Poetry

  1. This seems like a really interesting project and a different way for students to engage with primary sources. I have to say, however, that I found the first example you shared pretty jarring, as it seems to present the SS soldier as someone we would be empathizing with. I’m not sure what the primary source was, but based on the slides you shared it didn’t seem like that was the perspective of the source the student looked at. I’m curious about what kinds of sources and perspectives the students were engaging with, and what other conversations happened around these sources. Was there discussion of the distinction between exploring a perspective and being sympathetic to it?
    I think the goal of exploring different perspectives is a good one, but I’m wary of exercises that result in empathizing with atrocity. Nazi soldiers who engaged in mass murder were complicit in the atrocities they perpetrated; they were not the victims.

  2. Dear Sarah Kelley,
    I am sorry if the impression you got was that the student was showing sympathy with the SS soldiers. That was not the intent.
    If you look closely at her note taking documents (which are linked in the article), she points out the atrocity that was witnessed by a bystander, Graebe, Hermann, “Eyewitness Account of Einsatz Executions.” And yes, we had discussions in class to help process this primary source as well as the supportive, historical context article that she found in the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

    You are quite right that this is a jarring account. I think that the student’s reflection in her notes shows her understanding of the horror of this killing machine. It is a tough topic that merits thoughtful conversations. Perhaps the cursory presentation that this AISL blog format provides is not the best format for the type of thoughtful discussion that this topic requires. My apologies if the manner in which this information was presented was misunderstood in its intent.

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