Lesson on 'I, Too' by Langston Hughes
The simplicity of the diction makes this poem very accessible. With that simplicity comes great dignity, which is reinforced by the measured quality of the recording, and a quiet certain strength. Understanding that language and power are not always related by rhetoric and persuasion, but can also be related by the simple dignified assertion of truth, is an important lesson. This poem can also be used to help students understand that even when we have little power in society we still have the agency of voicing the truth, and literature is an important space in which this can happen.
For students to:
- investigate the power of the title using corpus tools
- experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of Hughes's original recording
- explore how the strength and power of the poem’s voice are constructed
- compare this with other texts.
- Copies of the poem for each student
- The Poetry Archive recording of Langston Hughes reading I, Too
- Copies of Maya Angelou's 'Still I Rise'
Teaching sequence of activities
Display the title 'I, Too' on the board. Invite mildly mystified reflection as to what it might mean, when they might have heard or used this phrase, its strangeness, etc. Then look at a series of real examples of this phrase in use. You could do this 'live' by going to the Variation In English Words and Phrases website, typing 'I too' into the search box and hitting return. Click on the phrase in the screen that comes up and you will see lots and lots of examples of the phrase in use. If 'live' is a scary prospect, or you don't have an internet connected computer in your classroom, you could do this beforehand and copy and paste some of the examples into a handout. Whichever, have students exploring this data and coming to some conclusions about how the phrase is used and/or what effect it has. Review ideas: the key points are about an emphatic tone, the assertion of a strong bond, and inclusion.
Next, display the first line of the poem on the board and discuss: what is it to sing a country? Why might the speaker need to assert his/her connection or inclusion? Who might the speaker be?
Then listen to the Poetry Archive recording, in which Langston Hughes gives some context to the poem and then reads it. Invite comment about what else we can now say about the first line of the poem. How has it been illuminated by the poet's description, by the rest of the poem, and by the recording? Play it again and invite comment about why this voice needs to be asserted in poetry.
Next, give out copies of the poem and model/discuss how the poet's choice of language makes the poem's voice strong:
- directness and honesty of simply diction;
- assertive verbs - 'will' and 'am';
- verbs connoting a good happy life - 'sing', 'eat', 'laugh', 'grow';
- the powerful assertion of inclusion in the title and in the word 'brother';
- repetitions with inversions;
- positive adjectives to describe self - 'beautiful' and 'strong';
- absolute certainty of 'nobody';
- implied power of 'dare'.
You could do this on an IWB using annotation and colour coding.
Then give copies of Maya Angelou's poem 'Still I Rise'. It cries out for a shared reading, so if you've got the stamina and the sound-proofing, give each student a line. First time through, just get them to say it; second time get it going with some pace and rhythm; third time have them all chorusing 'I'll rise' or 'I rise' too. This kind of aural activity can help students FEEL the power of the language, especially in a poem like this with such strong rhythmic certainty.
Then sort students out into groups and invite them to produce a Venn diagram to represent similarities and differences between the two poems, and the way they use language to convey power.
Have a big Venn diagram on the board and have students contributing their ideas to a collective summary.
Produce an anthology of poems (and/or other genres) about language and power, or the power of speaking out, or whatever you want to call it.
- Read a variety of excerpts from slave narratives at Spartacus Educational
- Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech is available in audio form at American Rhetoric