Common Core Standards: ELA
Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
There are two parts to this standard: Part one asks that students demonstrate their ability to write over a number of days, which will allow them to complete research, reflect on that information, and create and revise drafts. In part two, students are expected to write in a shorter time frame, allowing them to practice their summary and response skills at a thinking-on-their-feet sort of pace. No matter the time frame, students should be getting comfortable with writing tasks in different formats for a variety of purposes and audiences. The following activity is an example of how you might ask students to take the reins on this one.
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As part of the multi-cultural poetry unit, your class read several poems from writers across the world. There were many poems included in the unit from countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, Somalia, West Africa, and Mexico. Today, your teacher has asked that you select one of these poems, study it closely, and explain the theme or central idea. One poem in particular calls your name: “Thoughts of Hanoi,” written by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Thi Vinh. You will need to take notes to figure out the meaning of the poem, using all of those tricks you have in your poetry destroyer kit.
To demonstrate your understanding of theme, you’ve decided to take on the role of the speaker of the poem. You’re a soldier fighting on one side of the conflict, chatting up a friend who is fighting on the opposing side. You’re going to write a letter to that friend, a former classmate. You have just one class period to complete this task.
You go into the text of the poem and determine that the speaker is a soldier in Vietnam. He dreams of his hometown, Hanoi. The speaker writes about how he would like to bury the past and look toward the future. He wonders if things back home are just as he left them, with little girls playing house and little boys flying kites. He asks his friend if school children still sing the alphabet song. Do grandmothers still relax in the sunshine? Or, are all of these things gone because of the war?
Mainly, the speaker asks if they are still friends as they were in school, or are they truly enemies since they are on opposite sides of the conflict? He is afraid that if they meet along the road, war means they must kill each other, and he wonders how war can separate the best of friends. You figure that the theme is hidden in these lines: “Brother we are men,/ conscious of more/ than material needs./ How can this happen to us/ my friend/ my foe?” In war, friends and family are often separated by beliefs, and are sometimes forced into physical conflict.
Your letter to this friend, then, will include your thoughts about Hanoi as you used to know it, what it must be like now that the war is happening, how lives might have changed, and what you would do if you meet each other on the road to war. Finally, you’ll write about the theme of the poem, that is, how did it get to this? What are the author’s/speaker’s central concerns?
Now, let’s take that same poem, but change the task. This time you are given a time period of a week to complete some research, and then write an essay about your findings. You are asked to show how that same poem reflects the culture and time period in which it is written. You noticed while studying the poem that there were a number of capitalized words that you didn’t understand.
Your teacher is asking you to find out what these words mean. She calls them allusions (not to be confused with illusion), or references to the past. These might be historical events, famous people, literary characters, etc. These are usually proper nouns. What you’ll be researching is information about those allusions: Hanoi, Co-ngu Road, Hang Dao, Ngoc Son temple, Bac-ninh, Cam-giang, Yen-bai, and North and South Army.
In addition, you found cultural references… thatch, raven-bill, graybeards, and betel leaves. These become the basis for your research: What do these allusions mean, and what do the cultural words refer to? How do the allusions impact the meaning of the text? You will use the Internet to find out. For example, what and where is the Ngoc Son temple? You’ll also consider why these allusions are used in the poem. Information about each allusion and ethnic references will help you to answer the research question: How are culture and history a part of the poem?
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