Poetry in the Classroom

In honor of April, which is National Poetry Month, I’m exploring a variety of ways that people can use poetry to enrich their lives. This week I’m looking at poetry and it’s close cousin, music, as ways to add depth and texture to teaching history and exploring social justice.

This line from poet William Carols Williams about where to find news has always intrigued me:

“It is difficult to get the news from poems test men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

I think the same could be said for getting our history from poems and songs, or at least using those arts to give us an alternate lens of past events that are often rendered in a  sterile listing of facts.  I’m not saying that you could actually teach history by using only poetry and songs, but you can add depth to events that are often given just a few paragraphs of explanation, if they are mentioned at all

Poems offer us personal glimpses into the people who lived through events, such as wars, labor movements,  and fights for justice. By reading and reciting an author’s poems, we may begin to realize the felt-sense of that person’s experiences and begin to see more clearly how our lives and struggles are related to the author’s.

I think the other benefit of using poetry is that the abstract is made concrete by telling the story of a personal experience. When history teachers want to talk about segregation and the impact that the Jim Crow system had on ordinary Black Americans, perhaps they could turn to Langston Hughes’s poem “Merry-Go-Round” for a compelling entry point that will engage students in a visceral experience.


Colored child at carnival

Where is the Jim Crow section

On this merry-go-round,

Mister, cause I want to ride?

Down South where I come from

White and colored

Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train

There’s a Jim Crow car.

On the bus, we’re put in the back–

But there ain’t no back

To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse

For a kid that’s black?

For more recent history of the senseless violence and continuing racism that Black Americans face, teachers could look to the Poets.org and select a few poems from the Black Lives Matter page, which has some profoundly moving poetry. And to look at some history from the recent past, read Lucille Clifton’s poem,  “jasper    texas   1998,” about James Byrd in Texas in 1998. You can find this poem in Blessing the Boats.

And what about the role of songs in getting students engaged with history? One song that taught me something I had never heard of is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. McCutcheon recounts the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce that happened during Christmas Eve in 1914 as German and British troops huddled in frozen trenches to celebrate Christmas in the midst of carnage.

The song raises a series of questions about why we fight wars and about the power of getting to know the “enemy” as a person. So often, once people on opposite sides of a battle begin to share their personal stories, they find they have much in common. And when they begin to think that both sides have families and friends who love them, they begin to lose the will to fight.

Here’s the song and a link to Joyeux Noel, the movie that was made a few years ago that explores the Christmas Truce of 1914 in greater detail. Imagine the questions that students might raise if they heard this song and watched the film.

Sabrina Baron: An Historian Looks at Holding on and Letting Go

What do we hold on to and what do we let go of in terms of emotions and possessions? Incessantly we are told we MUST let go, that letting go is the best course, in terms of dealing with, well, everything. But if human experience, indeed existence, is measured in sensation and interaction, how do we let go? What and who do we let go? Moreover, should we let go?


A few years ago I made a foray into Buddhism by spending a week at a Buddhist retreat in the Shenandoah Valley. Buddhism, of course, is all about letting go. I spent a lot of time in relaxation, contemplation, and meditation, including multiple sessions daily with a meditation teacher. But I could never understand, could never accomplish the emptying out of my mind, the expulsion of my thoughts that was supposed to be the achievement of meditation. I remember asking for more explicit explanation and instruction about the out breath, the exhalation that expels thoughts from your consciousness as air is expelled from your body. But the expulsion of thought remained something I could never achieve. How do you empty your mind? How do you let go of thought? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Does not thought define human existence?

Our culture has come to be permeated with notions of letting go. Fewer possessions lead to a more rewarding existence. Downsizing is both an industry and a lifestyle. The shaming directed at those who do not conform is considerable, as is the resulting guilt. Relationship has become a dirty word to a large sector of society, which views it as a human association that is limiting. Indeed, humans are more often encouraged to seek attachment to animals rather than other humans. Many current human attachments are determined in seconds by swiping left. “Men are like busses—another one will come along.” There is even a dating site called POF—Plenty of Fish. If it’s not the personal connection that fits your ideal, let it go. It’s better to be alone, unencumbered. But should such important markers of human existence be ephemeral and dispensable? Is it better to be alone? How do we know?

I should disclose that I am an historian by training, profession, and inclination. My ex-husband said I vastly prefer the dead over the living. Our understanding of the past is generally constructed of physical remainders, physical reminders in objects, documents, photos, books, etc. I’ve always collected and acquired things because they provide meaning for me—as repositories of information, reminders of people and events, my own experiences, lost ways of life. With life changes that have had me moving from one residence to another on my own, I can see the wisdom of downsizing possessions. Oh the times in the past few months I have opened a box and asked myself: “Where did this come from? Why did I ever want this? What was I thinking????” But I could not part from most of my possessions that came to me from much beloved individuals or experiences, in which my memories reside. They might mean something only to me, but the mean something important, something vital, to me. I recently decided I am no longer going to apologize or feel guilty about what I own, even though the social pressure to do so is immense and weighty.

Divorce is one instance in which I let something, a lot of things, go. I haven’t found a new romantic relationship since my marriage broke up. I’ve been told repeatedly from a variety of perspectives that it’s because I can’t let go, that I can’t move on the way I need to do. I have spent a lot of time, money, and emotional anguish to receive that opinion. (He has moved on to new trophy wife and baby. Does that make him more successful at coping with life than I am? And oh yeah, that means he’s not alone.) I am constantly abjured by people who are supposed to be my close friends that I do not appreciate the virtues of aloneness. Recently I read that we should not keep objects and letters from prior relationships, indeed prior periods of our lives, so we can move on and not be held back by memories. But should I jettison thirty years of my life? Am I obligated to do that as part of divorce? Should I jettison memories of the experiences that make me who I am? Another recent resolution is to stop feeling guilty about and apologizing for not wanting to be alone.

A large part of my love for history comes from my maternal grandmother who was the family historian by inclination. She held on to photos, newspaper clippings, small souvenirs, possessions and stories when no one else did. She remembered everyone’s name and dates and lives; in many cases, her memories were all that remained of another person’s existence. But her advice in times of difficulty was always: “Never look back.” Is that as contradictory as it might seem on the surface? How is it possible to do both of these things? Why is “never look back” sage advice? Does history not have valuable lessons, models, and examples for our present existence whether at the personal or cultural level? If memory is limiting, why is the human mind programmed to remember?

Without memories, whether they take the tangible form of possessions or the intangible form of emotions, what do we have? What then constitutes our existence? Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I feel. I remember, therefore I am. If we jettison thoughts and the emotions they conjure, or objects and the memories they evoke, what then remains?

Sabrina Baron grew up in the tobacco culture of rural Kentucky, but left to study history at the University of Chicago, where she completed a PhD. She has since travelled to and lived in a number of places in Europe and the US and has attempted to make a career teaching and writing history.