In Language Arts 2, students are leading their own class discussions, as they read American poems of individual and national identity.

Students read poems by Walt Whitman that situate the individual as part of the 19th-century industrial American city; poems by Langston Hughes (who read Whitman and directly echoes him) that question what it means to be a black American in the early 20th-century; and one poem by Eileen Myles from 1991 that explores issues of poverty and the place of the American politician. In each one, the speaker claims to be presenting a self, an individual identity, but one that is bound up with the collective identity and history of a nation.

The students worked in small groups to organize a 20-minute lesson plan for their classmates. Each group was responsible for one poem—reading it aloud and then moderating a full-class discussion. To prepare, group members discussed the poem with one another to gather observations and then formulated discussion questions that were both specific and open-ended, just like the ones they came up with as they wrote their analytical essays last block. By posing questions, they engaged with reading as a process of looking for what we don’t know and considering the different angles from which we might understand it better.

They also created activities for their peers. One group led the class in a close-reading of their poem’s title, annotating it on the white board by writing up all their classmates’ ideas; another group had students do some preliminary research on their computers, looking up the geography and history of places mentioned in their poem; and one group had students practice listening skills by turning to a partner, sharing ideas on a particular question, and then raising hands to tell the class one of their partner's ideas.

By taking on this teaching role, students learned how to lead their peers in exploration and help create a collective learning experience. They worked on listening attentively, sometimes asking follow-up questions or re-phrasing a student’s idea to clarify it or encouraging quieter students to raise their hands. Through this activity they were able to synthesize the speaking, listening, and reading skills they have been practicing all year.

-- Sydney Cochran