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Best of the Week 2019-2020: Teaching to the Future


Juniors in Ms. Shelby Dennstedt's American Literature class were recently assigned a poem creation assignment, entitled "I Hear MY America Singing," asking students to create an original poem, drawing inspiration from their own life experiences. After reading, discussing and reflecting on Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing" and two poetic responses including, "I, Too, Sing America" by Langston Hughes and "I, Too, Sing América" by Julie Alvarez, Ms. Dennstedt encouraged students to take their own turn to respond with their views on America. "Each of these poem samples represent a different period in time in the development of our country," says Ms. Dennstedt. "America was coming together during the Industrial Revolution and Whitman's poem represents the celebration of the common person working to establish the building blocks of our future. Conversely, Hughes' poem differs in structure and tone, representing people who have been marginalized by society, particularly African-Americans. His poem was written during the heart of segregation. Finally, students looked at the poem by Alvarez, a Dominican-American poet from the 21st century. This final poem differs from the previous two in structure, tone and diction, as she weaves Spanish and English together in a celebration of her culture's place as equal in America today."

With much inspiration to pull from, students were encouraged to work on their analytical skills to further enhance their potential in expressing their own voices. Students brainstormed and were asked to reflect on the changes they've seen happen in society, the experiences they've had, major moments in political, social and personal history that they've witnessed, the differences between generations, and the hope they see for the future of America. "Looking at multiple poems and working through each one allowed students to see the different stylistic choices that each writer made, but also the changes in perspectives over time," says Ms. Dennstedt. "Students had their own freedom to frame their own poems and my hope was for them to speak from their perspective and to think about the world around them. Leaving the prompt open allowed students to take their poems in any direction and the range was quite incredible. I was surprised at the wide variety of topics and my students' willingness to be honest with their thoughts."

During Tuesday's ecumenical prayer service celebrating diversity and Black History Month, Ryan Crable '21 and Hunter Price '21 (photographed above) shared their poems with the St. Edward community, reflecting on how they see America through their eyes and their daily experiences. "I hope our community saw the similarities and differences between the poems that Ryan and Hunter shared," says Ms. Dennstedt. "I'm sure some elements within their poems hit home for some students and some might have agitated others as well, but I think it's important to ask ourselves why we connect with some themes and are bothered by others. Sometimes it is important to sit with our own discomfort, because without doing so, there is no room for growth. Our students have more depth to them than we sometimes recognize. I think the concept of the 'American Dream' has warped and changed from its original understanding. For some, the view from their seat is bright while for others the outlook appears grim, but life doesn't stay the same for long, especially if we are all willing to hear the 'song' that each of us is singing."

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