Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Poetry as Social Justice

Reading & Writing Poetry

K20 Center, Jason Stephenson | Published: May 26th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course American Literature, Composition, Creative Writing
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 110 minutes


After reading a poem and article about the death of an African American man, students read an article about the death of an African American boy and write an elegy for him in response. While this lesson is currently aligned only to 9th grade standards, it would be appropriate to teach in grades 9th through 12th, adjusting standards as needed.

Essential Question(s)

How can poets engage in social justice?



Students read the Ross Gay poem "A Small Needful Fact" about Eric Garner and discuss what they notice and wonder.


Students read a newspaper article about the death of Eric Garner, using the Why-Lighting strategy.


Students make connections between the poem and the newspaper article using the Paired Texts H-Chart.


Students read a newspaper article about the death of Tamir Rice, using the Why-Lighting strategy, then write their own poem about Tamir.


Students share their poems in small groups and with a Gallery Walk and then compare their poems to Clint Smith's poem "Playground Elegy."


  • Computer/projector access

  • Copies of attachments

  • Highlighters

  • Sharpie or Mr. Sketch Markers

  • Writing utensils


Tell students that they will be reading a poem today about an American man who died.

Distribute copies of the poem "A Small Needful Fact" (see Attachments) and, if possible, pull up the poem on your projector.

Read the poem aloud. You, as the teacher, can read it aloud, but you can also ask if any students are willing. It is helpful to hear the poem multiple times. You could even ask one student to read the poem in a voice that gets quieter and quieter.

Utilizing the I Notice, I Wonder strategy, ask students what they notice and wonder about the poem.

Ask students to circle the word they find most important in the poem. Have them compare their answers with a partner or small group. Then, ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and to justify their answers.


Tell students they are going to learn more about Eric Garner, the man from the poem, by reading a magazine article. Tell students they will need a highlighter and writing utensil for this activity.

Pass out "Eric Garner and Michael Brown: Deaths Without Indictments" and tell students to follow along as you the article aloud. You can also have students each take turns reading a paragraph aloud. If they can handle it, students can also silently read the article.

Now, using the Why-Lighting strategy, invite students to highlight the important passages from the article and to explain their reasoning in the margins.

Lead the whole class in a discussion about their highlights and how their understanding of Eric Garner has changed.

Some possible questions:

  1. How did Eric Garner die? [A police chokehold]

  2. What were Eric Garner's last words? ["I can't breathe."]

  3. Why are Garner's last words significant? [They show he is crying out for help. They foreshadow his death.]

  4. Who is to blame for Garner's death? [Some students will blame the officer who choked him. Others might say Brown shouldn't have been breaking the law to begin with.]


Now students will make connections between the poem and magazine article by using the Paired Texts H-Chart Strategy.

Have students turn a piece of paper or their notebook from portrait to landscape and draw the outline of a big capital H. An H-Chart template is located in the Attachments section.

In the first leg of the H, invite students to make a list of important information about Eric Garner they learned from the poem. Take time to discuss in small groups or as a class.

In the second leg of the H, invite students to make a list of important information about Eric Garner they learned from the magazine article. Pause again for discussion.

On the center line of the H-Chart, students should write about their biggest takeaway about Eric Garner they learned from both pieces of writing. Take time to share out some responses.

At this time, invite students to examine the final two lines of the poem: "like making it easier / for us to breathe." Students should note its irony—that the plants Eric Garner planted help us to breathe and Garner's last words were "I can't breathe."


Tell students that contemporary poets—poets who are alive today—engage in social justice when writing about current events and civil rights. Poetry can, indeed, be political.

Explain that they will read another article about the death of a Black person at the hands of police, except this time he is a 12-year-old boy.

Pass out the NPR article "Officer Who Killed Tamir Rice Fired For Rule Violations On Job Application."

Ask students to use the Why Lighting strategy while you read the article aloud (or allow for collaborative/independent reading opportunities).

Give students time after reading to compare their notes with a partner and then to discuss as a whole class.

Invite students to think about how they would write a poem for Tamir Rice. Give them time to brainstorm and then write a draft of a poem in honor of Tamir, like how the poet Ross Gay wrote a poem in honor of Eric Garner. Inform students that the genre of this poem is an elegy, a poem written for someone who has died. To help students brainstorm, provide some possible poem titles for them like: "Twelve Years Old," "On the Playground," or "Not Guilty."


Once all students have written a draft of a poem, ask them to share in groups of three or four.

Have groups each pick one poem to share with the whole class in a modified Gallery Walk. You can have the author of the poem decide if they wish to stay behind and read the poem aloud to each group. Give enough sticky notes to each group, so they can leave two comments on each poem.

Students should rotate clockwise around the room, taking time to read or listen to each poem before leaving some feedback.

Once the Gallery Walk is completed, give students time to read their feedback and discuss it with their groups. Provide time for some whole-group conversation about the feedback that was given. Will any students revise their poems based on the feedback from their classmates?

Then, tell students you have one more poem for them that was not in the Gallery Walk. Pass out "Playground Elegy" (attached) or simply display it with your projector and read it aloud. Even though Tamir Rice is not named in the poem, the details point to his being the "new child" since the setting is a park/playground.

Give students time to discuss the poem with a partner or small group, then as a whole class.

Using a website like PollEverywhere or Mentimeter, have students vote for the best Tamir Rice poem from the poems that were presented in the Gallery Walk as well as Clint Smith's "Playground Elegy." If technology is not available for this, use the Sticky Bars strategy.