Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

No One's Waving, We're All Drowning

Interpreting Poetry

Keristy Nieto | Published: September 24th, 2020 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course A.P. Language and Composition, A.P. Literature and Composition, British Literature, Composition, Creative Writing
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 100 minutes


This lesson will provide students with a personal understanding of Stevie Smith's poem, "Not Waving but Drowning". Students will practice inferencing and analytical skills during this lesson. Students will be assessed by utilizing a graphic organizer and a writing prompt encouraging a personal relationship with the poem. While this lesson is currently aligned only to 11th grade standards, it would be appropriate to teach in grades 11 through 12, adjusting standards as needed.

Essential Question(s)

How does our worldview shape how we personally view ourselves?



Students will use the instructional strategy "Agreement Circles" to discuss whether people are generally understood or misunderstood.


Students will read "Not Waving but Drowning" as a class.


Students will utilize "Literature Graffiti", a graphic organizer, to analyze the poem.


Students will create a two-minute paper relating his/her life to the protagonist in the poem.


Students will use the RAFT strategy to demonstrate higher order thinking while analyzing the poem.


  • Computer with speakers and projector

  • Copy of text (or 12th grade OKCPS literature book)

  • Copies of Literature Graffiti graphic organizer and Student RAFT Self-Evaluation handouts

  • Attached PowerPoint

  • Writing materials: pens, pencils, paper, etc.


To begin the lesson, students will engage in a strategy called Agreement Circles. Begin by instructing all students to stand, then read the following statement- "People misunderstand each other". If students agree with the statement, they are to stand in the center of the circle. If they disagree with the statement, they are to stand on the outside of the circle. Allow students to talk to their "face partner" for 30 seconds each between statements. Repeat with the following statements- #2- People are lonely. #3-You see what's around you. #4- Two people can see the same thing and interpret something completely different.

Agreement Circles: Questions are posed in the attached powerpoint.


The class will listen to "Not Waving but Drowning."

After the initial reading the class will discuss initial interpretations of the poem. Discussion questions may include the following: (See Slide 7 on the attached PowerPoint.)

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Who does the speaker align himself with- the drowning man or the onlookers?

  2. What is the effect of repetition in the poem?

  3. By altering the first stanza’s final phrase, what does Smith suggest about the life of the drowned man?

  4. Smith’s poem asks us to think about the ways in which we misunderstand or misread the people around us- what opinion does the gathered crowd seem to have of the drowned man?

  5. Does the poem suggest that they ever know the truth about him? Can you imagine the type of person he was from the poem’s descriptions? (Questions from


Students will use the "Literature Graffiti" graphic organizer to personally analyze the poem. Explain to students that they are to complete the "graffiti" section on the left first. This section is to be the cover art for the poem. If the poem was to be captured in one picture, what would that picture be? After the "graffiti" section is complete, they can complete the right-hand side of the page.

Students should be encouraged to work collaboratively and share their creations with others.


Students will write a two minute paper answering ONE of the following: How has your life (either now or in the past) been like the drowning man? How is your life opposite of the drowning man?

During the Two-Minute paper, students must write the entire time. They are not allowed to stop writing. Assure students that the goal of the paper is to get ideas across, not necessarily excel at spelling, grammar, and mechanics.

Two-Minute Paper: Two-Minute Paper instructions are listed in the attached PowerPoint.

Encourage students to share their paper with an elbow partner and ask for volunteers to share out with the whole class.


Students will answer one of the following using the RAFT strategy: 1. You are a news reporter writing the account of the man who died. Use quotes from the bystanders, emergency workers, and/or his friends. 2. Imagine that the drowning man has a computer and is allowed one last Facebook post. What would his status be? The status must address: how the man got there, his last thoughts, and what he is thinking about when staring at the onlookers.

RAFT: RAFT instructions are listed in the attached Lesson Slides.

Ask if any students would like to share their RAFT with the class. The publication stage of the writing process is often neglected, but is important to student efficacy.