Standard Lesson

Examining History with Maya Angelou's Poetry

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Well known for addressing social issues in the world through her poetry, Maya Angelou's moving poems serve to teach historical topics in this lesson. To understand the world that surrounded her, students practice their visual literacy skills as they first examine photographs from the Library of Congress. These primary sources illustrate some of the events that affected her life and thus her writing. Next students research these events in order to create trading cards using the ReadWriteThink Trading Card Creator Student Interactive. While reading Angelou's poems, students share the trading cards to better understand the background for her writing.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Finding methods to engage student interest and increase motivation is a constant challenge for all teachers. Cruickshank suggests that using an interdisciplinary approach, such as integrating history into the language arts curriculum, will encourage positive attitudes towards subject matter as well as boost student understanding. By combining poetry with World War II, Friese and Nixon discovered that their students were drawn “into deeper connections and emotions of a difficult time in history.” Similarly, in this lesson that includes researching civil rights events, students delve deeper into the topic of racism. It will provide the opportunity for students to see how circumstances in life shape the writing process.

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.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 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

  • Tablets or computers with Internet access
  • One computer with LCD projector and Internet access
  • Adapter to connect one tablet to LCD projector if using the mobile app
  • Optional: The audiobook Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou
  • Printer
  • Optional: document camera



Students will use this worksheet to analyze photos of historical events that occurred during Maya Angelou’s life.


  1. If possible, sign up for a free class wiki at Wikispaces or a free class Web site at Google Sites or Wix. Post the two research links on the wiki or Web site. If this is not possible, plan on providing students with the links.
  2. Meet with your school librarian to see what other resources, such as databases and print materials, are available. Use the Suggested Print Materials to arrange for books. Use the Suggested Maya Angelou Links sheet for research links and suggested video links.
  3. If this is the first research project for the class, provide for citing sources using the mini-lesson Research Building Blocks: “Cite Those Sources.” Furthermore, if this is the students’ first project citing sources, then using Exploring, Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing prior to this project would be beneficial.
  4. Also prior to this lesson, students have learned to evaluate Web sites before this lesson. They can be taught this skill by using the lesson Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection or the mini-lesson Research Building Blocks: Examining Electronic Sources.
  5. Prior to this lesson, students should have studied the elements of poetry, such as simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, allusion, and so forth. Lessons such as Using the Four-Square Strategy to Define and Identify Poetic Terms, Color of Silence: Sensory Imagery in Pat Mora’s Poem “Echoes”, What Am I? Teaching Poetry through Riddles, and Today is World Poetry Day provide ideas for teaching such concepts.
  6. Select which videos you would like to share with the students. Check that they will play on the computer connected to the LCD projector.
  7. Make one copy of each of the seven poems and seven copies of the Poetry Analysis printout. Consult the Suggested Maya Angelou Poems sheet, if needed. For the poem “Still I Rise” it is suggested for middle school students to only use the first six stanzas because of the sexual reference in the seventh stanza.
  8. Make one copy per student of the printouts Possible Research Topics, Notetaking Sheet, Listening Notes, and Trading Card Rubric. You could also choose to project Possible Research Topics instead of printing one copy per student.
  9. Make one copy per three students of the Photo Analysis Worksheet.
  10. Familiarize yourself with the Trading Card Creator.
  11. Create a trading card to serve as an example or use the Trading Card Example about Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling that created the “separate but equal” doctrine.
  12. Angelou’s poems are powerful when read aloud, especially if Angelou is the reader. Therefore, check that you will be able to show the videos of the poems you select. If you cannot access YouTube, obtain the audiobook Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou, which features Angelou reading.
  13. Arrange for students to have access to either computers or iPads for sessions two and three.
  14. Print which photos from the Library of Congress you would like to use, using the Suggested Photos from the Library of Congress sheet as a guide. Make sure that you do not include any description with the photos.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • analyze photos from the Library of Congress.
  • create trading cards.
  • correctly cite sources.
  • analyze the poetry of Maya Angelou.
  • understand the connection between events in history to Maya Angelou’s poetry.

Session One

  1. Begin by dividing the class into small groups of three. Give each group the Photo Analysis Worksheet and one of the images you have prepared from the Library of Congress. Allow time for students to complete the worksheet.
  2. Bring the class back together and let each group share their photo. If you have a document camera, project the image for the class to more easily view the photo. If not, have one of the group members walk through the classroom to show the image as the other two group members share their photo analysis. At the end of each group’s presentation, tell the class what historical event their photo illustrates.
  3. When all groups have presented, explain that these photos illustrate events that occurred during the life of Maya Angelou. Show the video Maya Angelou: Her Quotes, Poetry and Prose to serve as an introduction to the poet. Follow the video with a short discussion that emphasizes the fact that the video calls her “a prominent voice in civil rights” and her conviction that she cannot live in a world where others do not accept each other.
  4. Tell students that to understand the historical background that influenced Angelou’s writing, they will research events that occurred during her lifetime and share their research through trading cards. Project your sample trading card or the Trading Card Example. If you use the example, explain to the students that the ruling from Plessy v. Ferguson occurred many years before Angelou’s birth but definitely affected her life.
  5. Hand out the Trading Card Rubric. Go through the categories with the students. Evaluate the projected trading card using the rubric.
  6. Project or distribute the printout Possible Research Topics. Allow time for students to select what they will research. Have print materials for students to examine as they make their decisions. If access to the Internet is available, allow students to execute quick searches on the topics, too.
  7. Hand out the Notetaking Sheet, and invite students to use the print materials to start finding information. Remind them to cite these print materials to begin their bibliography.
  8. At the end of the session, tell students they can continue their research as homework.

Session Two (computers or tablets)

  1. Before students begin researching on the computers or iPads, remind them to evaluate the Web sites before taking notes. They should consider the following:
    • Who is the author of the Web site? Can the author be considered an expert?
    • What is the purpose of the Web site? Is it to inform or sell something? What is the domain of the Web site—edu, org, com, gov?
    • When was the Web site written? Is it current material?
    • Where did the author get his information? Are there links to other sites that might be useful?
    • Why is this Web site useful? Is it easy to read and navigate?
    • Remind students to cite the sources they decide to use.
  2. Have students begin their research at and then expand their research to other databases and Web sites as well as use the print materials. Remind them to cite the Web sites from which they take notes.
  3. While students work, circulate throughout the class, helping those who are having trouble finding information. Check that students are citing sources and help those who are having trouble with this task. Note if students are on task as that is part of the rubric.
  4. At the end of the session, tell students that tomorrow they will assemble their trading cards, so the Notetaking Sheet needs to be completed at the beginning of the next session.

Session Three

  1. Check that all have completed the Notetaking Sheet. Allow additional time, if needed, for students who have not finished this task.
  2. Project the trading card you have created or the Trading Card Example. Have students look at their Notetaking Sheet and match where the information from each category on the sheet goes on the card.
  3. Model the ReadWriteThink Trading Card Creator Student Interactive on a device connected to a LCD projector. Be sure to show students how to save an image and insert it into the trading card. Also, show students how to e-mail you their finished cards. Include how to print their finished products, if desired, to showcase in the classroom.
  4. While students are working on their trading cards, circulate through the room, assisting those students who are having trouble with the app or student interactive. Note the time on task as that is part of the rubric.
  5. After students finish their trading cards, tell them to assemble their bibliographies. Tell them to print these as they are part of the rubric.
  6. As students complete both tasks, pair them with partners to check over each other’s work. Tell them to use the Trading Card Rubric to help with peer editing.
  7. At the end of the session, tell students that they will present their trading cards in class during the next session.

Session Four

  1. Check that all students have completed their trading cards and bibliographies. Allow enough time for students to complete the two tasks.
  2. Show the video Power of Words. Discuss the values that this video shows Maya Angelou cherishes.
  3. Hand out the Listening Notes printout. Instruct students to complete this printout as they learn about each other’s trading cards. Project each student’s trading card that has been e-mailed to you for students to easily see what each has created. Have students present their research and allow time for students to discuss after each presentation.
  4. At the end of the session, explain to students that they will use their Listening Notes when they meet in groups in the next session to analyze a poem.

Session Five

  1. Before students walk into the classroom, post the photos from Session One on the walls. If the Trading Cards were printed, post these, too.
  2. Have students take out their Listening Notes and then divide students into seven groups. Give each group one of Angelou’s poems and the Poetry Analysis printout. If possible, arrange for each group to hear their poem read aloud through the audiobook or the Web sites. If not, instruct students to read the poem aloud in their groups as step one of analyzing the poem. Also, tell them to use their Listening Notes when they answer the last question.
  3. As students work on their analysis, circulate throughout the classroom, helping groups that are having trouble with the Poetry Analysis printout. Check that students are explaining the connection between the historical events and the poem they are analyzing. Remind students of the events by calling their attention to the posted photos and Trading Cards.
  4. When all groups have finished their analysis, call the class back together. Before a group presents their analysis, play either the accompanying video or audiobook. While each group is presenting, project their poem so that the students can easily recall the words of the poems. Ask students to react to the analysis and add comments. Recall the historical events that influenced the writing of each poem.
  5. As a closing activity, show the video Dr. Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life or Dr. Maya Angelou: "Be a Rainbow in Someone Else's Cloud.” Conclude by discussing the overall values that show though the video and her poetry. Also, discuss if Maya Angelou lived today what current events might she have written about.
  6. As an exit ticket, invite students to complete some of the reflection statements in the Assessment section.


  • Using a wall in the classroom, create a timeline with the printed trading cards for a visual display of history.
  • To show how Maya Angelou affected lives, show the video Maya Angelou’s Conversation with Tupac Shakur (or at this alternate location.) In this video she explains teaching Tupac Shakur the importance of African-American heritage.
  • Discuss Maya Angelou as a performer by showing students Maya Angelou rapping one of her poems in the video Maya Angelou and Arsenio Hall.
  • Ask students to consider what historical events have influenced their own lives and write poems about these events.
  • Have other poems of Maya Angelou available for students who want to read more of her poetry.
  • Post the students’ trading cards to the class wiki or Web page. Invite the learning community to view these.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Possible student assessment include

I believe one of the most important historical events to influence Maya Angelou was _____________________.
I believe if Maya Angelou was alive today, she would be writing about __________________________.
From reading Maya Angelou’s poetry, I learned _______________________.

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