Standard Lesson

Childhood Remembrances: Life and Art Intersect in Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa"

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Three 50-minute sessions
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In her poem "Nikki-Rosa," Nikki Giovanni describes specific moments from her childhood. The images she recalls are more than biographical details; they are evidence to support her premise that growing up black doesn't always mean growing up in hardship. Adapted from Carol Jago's Nikki Giovanni in the Classroom, this lesson invites students to explore what Jago calls the place "where life and art intersect" by carefully reading and discussing Giovanni's poem. They explore their own childhood memories using an interactive tool and then write about these memories, using Giovanni's poem as a model.

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From Theory to Practice

A close reading of a poem helps students go beyond identifying simple and obvious characteristics to explore the poet in more depth. In the case of a poem by Nikki Giovanni, for instance, students can move from "identify[ing] the speaker as black and from the country" to "think[ing] about what they can tell from the poem about [the speaker's] attitudes, about what they think might be [the speaker's] priorities in life" (11).

After such an exploration, students are ready to write poems of their own on similar topics. As they share their poems with the class, teacher and student can "talk about how it feels to use details from their own lives as raw material for their art" (12). As Carol Jago explains, "Though at first some [students] think I go too far to equate what they have written with what ‘real poets' create, the more we look for distinctions between their best work and published poetry, the more their objections subside. Life and art intersect in the classroom as well as on stage or in a published volume" (11-12). Once students can see these connections in their own writing, the connections between poet and poems becomes natural to them.

This lesson plan adapted from classroom ideas presented in Chapter 1 "Where Life and Art Intersect" from Nikki Giovanni in the Classroom, pp. 1-17.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • A presentation computer with multimedia capabilities

  • Projection device



Nikki Giovanni's Website includes biographical information and Web links to additional information on her writing. Note that the details on books and other resources link to; however, the multimedia, biographical information, and timeline are free of commercial links.


  • Make copies of the Transcript of "Nikki-Rosa" (or provide copies of the poem from a textbook).

  • (optional) If computer access is limited, make copies of the Biographer's Interview Chart for students, in lieu of the student interactive.

  • Make sure that your computers have the QuickTime or Real Player plug-in installed so that the "Nikki-Rosa" video will play. The plug-ins can be downloaded from the video page. Visit the page just before you begin Session One so that the download is completed when you are ready to play it for your class.

  • Test the Biographer's Interview Chart on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • explore the connections between life and art in a writer's work.

  • identify the underlying themes conveyed by the details in a poem.

  • review the characteristics of biography.

  • write to explore the varying ways that events in someone's life can be interpreted.

  • compose original poems modeled on Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa," which develop their understanding of the connections between life and art.

Session One

  1. Before reading and listening to "Nikki-Rosa," ask students to describe what they envision when they say or hear that someone has had a "hard childhood." Create a cluster on the board of all the features of this condition from your students' point of view.

  2. Ask students to think about some of the things they experienced as children that might make someone feel sorry for them but that were actually pleasurable. Students are likely to recall having to share a bed with a sibling where there was plenty of squabbling over space but also many sweet secrets shared. Or a student might remember weekly chores like ironing her father's shirts which, though she would never admit it to her mother, made her feel closer to her dad. Students might offer memories of hand-me-down clothes, errands to the store, or leftover dinners. Make a list of these on the board and title them "Childhood Remembrances." Save both these lists for use later in the lesson.

  3. Play the video of Giovanni reading "Nikki-Rosa" for students (the video loads automatically, but you need to click the play arrow to start the video). Because of the small size of the image, you can play the video for small groups of students, gathered around a single computer if projection equipment is not available.

  4. Once students have heard the poem, ask them to read it again to themselves silently.

  5. When you feel certain students have done this, have them read the poem a third time, underlining or highlighting all the words and phrases that describe the various pleasures the speaker in the poem remembers experiencing in her "hard" childhood. Remind students that while this poem may seem to be obviously autobiographical-the title is reasonably strong evidence-a careful reader always considers the speaker in a poem to be separate from the author.

  6. Initiate a discussion of the poem. The questions below can be starters for the discussion, but encourage the conversation to roam where it will. Requiring students to answer a list of questions could make them hate the poem forever.

    • Did any of the phrases that you marked in "Nikki-Rosa" remind you of your own childhood experiences? How did that make you feel about what you read?

    • How would you describe the speaker's attitude toward her childhood? Why do you think she is worried that a biographer will "never understand"?

    • What do you think you "understand" about the circumstances of the speaker's childhood? (Push students to be very specific here in order to help them recreate the world in which these childhood remembrances existed.)

    • Why do you think Nikki Giovanni chooses to address the reader directly as "you"? What effect did this have on you as a reader? What assumption does this use of the second person make about Giovanni's expectation of who her readers will be?

    • How did you interpret the line "And though you're poor it isn't poverty that / concerns you"? If it wasn't poverty that concerned the speaker, what was it that concerned her?
  7. Note that the line "and I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand" might cause some students to feel that Giovanni is casting them as the "bad guys" in the poem. Encourage students to think about how Giovanni's experience as a black person might lead her to make this generalization about white people. Discourage students from relegating such generalizations to the "bad old days" before the Civil Rights movement. If the issue comes up, it is important to discuss the pervasive presence of racism in our own society and how this shapes our generalizations about who we expect will "understand" us and who we expect never will.

Session Two

  1. Bring out the list of childhood remembrances that students compiled as a class. Ask students to take out a piece of paper or their writer's notebooks and make a list that is uniquely theirs. Let students know that no one need ever see this list and that they should simply try to record as many occurrences from their childhood that they can remember, both important and seemingly inconsequential.

  2. Have students imagine the following scenario:
    You just received an e-mail message from the biographer who conducted an interview with you last week for the book that she is writing about you. She was working with the notes from the conversation and realized that there were some questions about your childhood that she needs to ask for background material. She's asked you to send her some responses to these basic questions:

    • What is your happiest childhood memory? What made it memorable?

    • Tell me about a particular challenge you faced as a child.

    • What was your favorite place when you were a child? Why did you like it?

    • What special possession did you have-a special toy, article of clothing, and so forth? Why was it special?
  3. Make sure that students understand exactly what a biography is. For students with limited experience with the genre, share some samples with students. You can share books such as Zora Neale Hurston: Southern Storyteller (Enslow, 1996), Amos Fortune: Free Man (Puffin Books, 1989), and Colin Powell: Soldier and Patriot (Enslow, 1997) as well as Websites such as Top Ten African American Inventors and Black History Month Biographies. They need to see the kind of detail biographers include when writing about a person's life. What Is a Biography? can provide some background if students need more information.

  4. Explain that students will use the Biographer's Interview Chart student interactive to gather ideas for the information that the biographer has requested (and to write autobiographical poems of their own). Note that students can use the Biographer's Interview Chart handout if computer access is limited.

  5. Demonstrate the interactive, showing students how to add items to the chart as well as how to print and save their work:

    1. Type your name in the first slot in the interactive.

    2. For the title, choose a name that describes what your project such as "My Childhood Remembrances" or "Biographer's Interview."

    3. Click Next to move to the chart screen and enter your information.

    4. In the first column, write the answers that you'd share with your biographer. In the second column, write details that you'd keep to yourself or that the biographer might not understand.

    5. Demonstrate that writing is not limited to the size of the box shown on screen. Answers will scroll.

    6. When you've finished writing your responses, click Finish at the top of the screen.

    7. In the next window, click Print. Your answers will be displayed in a Web browser window.

    8. To print answers, choose the Print command from the File menu. To save your answers, choose the Save As... command from the File menu. Students can open the file later in a Web editor or a word processor that imports HTML (such as Microsoft Word or AppleWorks).

    9. Show students that the instructions for using the tool are available by clicking Instructions at the top of the screen.
  6. Give students the rest of the class period to complete the Biographer's Interview Chart student interactive, gathering their ideas. Remind students that they need to print out or save their information. While students work, encourage them to interact with one another, to share and receive feedback on their charts.

  7. Once students gather their notes in the Interview Chart, ask students to compose the e-mail responses to their biographers in their writer's notebooks. If your Internet capabilities allow, students can compose their answers in an e-mail message to you or to the class.

  8. Ask students to come to the next session ready to begin writing poems about their childhood remembrances. They should bring their Biographer's Interview Chart printouts and writer's notebook entries to class.

Session Three

  1. Ask students to select particularly revealing and interesting details from their interview chart, notes, and e-mail messages.

  2. Return to the Transcript of "Nikki-Rosa" and ask students to look at the poem as a model for their own writing. To begin, share the first few lines of the poem with some of the words removed:
    childhood remembrances are always ____________
    if you're ____________
    you always remember things like ____________

  3. Discuss options for filling in the blanks by brainstorming alternatives. Begin with the first line ("a drag"), inviting students to brainstorm a list of other descriptive adjectives that can describe childhood memories. Students' answers will likely focus on feelings such as happy, sad, depressing, or exciting. Encourage students to use slang terms, as Giovanni uses "a drag," if they want. Their words should be authentic.

  4. Next, move to options for the second line of the poem. If students resist moving beyond a list of racial categories (Latino, Lakota, and so forth), ask them about words that describe their heritage, religion, and so forth. Membership in a particular club or group could fill the blank as well (e.g., if you're a cheerleader, if you're a Cub Scout). Demonstrate adding a word as necessary-for instance, you might add the preposition "from" to list geographical regions (e.g., if you're from Virginia).

  5. At this point, students will have a list of words and ideas to start their poems. As you move to the third line, ask if anyone has selected a detail from their chart that could fill the third blank. Allow students to share their ideas.

  6. Once you're sure that students understand the activity, give them the rest of the session to write poems, imitating "Nikki-Rosa" and using a series of moments to create a picture of childhood. If students desire, their drafts may also take the form of a story poem in which the writer describes an event from beginning to end or another format.

  7. When students are satisfied with their drafts, have them turn to partners for help with revision.

  8. Allow time during the session for students to share their stories with the class.

  9. To conclude the activity, have students write reflectively in their writer's notebooks, in class or for homework, on the following prompt:

    Think about the choices that we've discovered poets make when they write a poem. How did you make choices as you were writing? How did life and art intersect in your work?


As a follow-up to this lesson, use the resources at Scholastic's Biography Writer's Workshop with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack Website to help students write biographies.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • As students discuss Giovanni’s poem and their own poems, listen for comments that indicate that students see the ways that life and art intersect. Provide supportive feedback for observations that show students are making connections between a writer’s life and art—especially connections to their own writing.

  • The reflective writing that concludes this activity will allow you to see which students are gaining a deeper understanding of the ways that life and art intersect. Read the journal entries and comment on the self-reflections, noting important observations that students make and asking provoking questions where they need to think more deeply.

  • If you’re satisfied from both class discussion and students’ reflections that they understand the influences of a writer’s life upon her art, you can begin the examination of your next piece of literature by connecting to this lesson. Ask specifically where life and art intersect in the piece.

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