Standard Lesson

Many Years Later: Responding to Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool"

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Students analyze the literary features of Gwendolyn Brooks' “We Real Cool” and then imagine themselves as one of the characters in the poem many years in the future. Students first read and discuss Brooks' poem, as well as an audio interview of Brooks in which she describes her inspiration for the poem. Students then write about what a character from the poem might be like today, fifty years after the poem was written. Partners share their responses and then brainstorm details on audience, purpose, and tone, before students write a first draft of the selected character's story. Students use a rubric and peer review as they complete polished versions of their work.

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From Theory to Practice

Responding to literature creatively demands a high level of engagement and analysis from students. Christian Knoeller explains that such "imaginative responses" to literature seem to lead frequently to "close and, importantly focused rereading. Many students report repeatedly consulting the text as they compose imaginative responses so that their writing is detailed and faithful to the original" (43).

By asking students to adopt the persona of a character from the poem, this activity, like those Knoeller describes, "invites student readers to explore a work from perspectives situated in the text" (44). Additionally, Knoeller suggests that such assignments can encourage students to "contemplate and give voice to perspectives that are silenced by a text" (44).

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.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 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

"We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks




Student Objectives

Students will

  • analyze the poem "We Real Cool."

  • complete focused rereadings of the poem.

  • explore the poem from the perspective of a character in the poem.

  • complete character analysis using a heuristic, brainstorming, and freewriting.

  • write an imaginative extension of the poem, based on one character.

  • complete peer review and reflection for their writing.

Session One

  1. Introduce poet Gwendolyn Brooks to the class, using information from her biography on and Brooks’ Life and Career from Modern American Poetry.

  2. Show students the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and ask for immediate responses to poem. Students will likely comment on the length, shape, and layout.

  3. Explain that there are many ways to read a poem aloud, depending upon the rhythm and intonation that the speaker adopts.

  4. Read the poem aloud to the class. Note that it’s important for the teacher to read the poem as a comparison to Brooks’ own reading. The goal is to avoid having any student feel that his/her reading is “incorrect” by comparison to the author’s.

  5. Ask students to comment on the poem’s meaning, perhaps summarizing the poem and discussing the meaning of the various phrases.

  6. Play the Audio Clip of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Comments and Reading of on the Poem for the class. Ask students to listen both to Brooks’ comments on her inspiration for the poem and her distinctive reading of the poem.

  7. After the clip finishes, ask students for immediate responses. Guide discussion with the following questions:

    • What does Brooks’ rhythm and emphasis add to her reading of the poem?

    • How does her reading influence the alliteration and rhyme of the poem?

    • How does the layout of the poem match her reading?
  8. Read through the questions in An Interview with Brooks by George Stavros with the class for further commentary on the way that the poem is read.

  9. Ask a student to summarize the situation that Brooks says inspired the poem in the audio clip. If desired, replay the commentary part of the audio for the class to remind them of the poet’s comments.

  10. Write the following sentence from Brooks’ comments on the board or on chart paper for the class: “I wonder how they feel about themselves.”

  11. Based on their reading, ask students to share their observations on how the characters in the poem feel about themselves. List their observations on the board, under the quotation from Brooks’ comments.

  12. Once students have exhausted their ideas, step back and review the list as a class. Make any changes or additions.

  13. When the class is satisfied with the list, ask students to comment on how the poem’s title relates to their observations about the characters.

  14. Specifically ask students to explain how these characters define cool. Encourage students to consider whether the poet’s definition of cool is that same as the characters’ definition.

  15. For homework, ask students to reread the poem and write a journal entry on one of the characters in the poem, responding to the reporter’s questions. If computer access is available, students can use the Basic Character Analysis Questions to complete their responses. Alternately, display the first question on the Gathering Ideas about a Golden Shovel Character sheet and ask students to copy the questions into their notebooks.

  16. If students are unfamiliar with the reporter’s questions, use the Sample Reporter’s Questions and Answers to explain the expectations for student’s homework.

Session Two

  1. Summarize any comments from the previous session and invite any additional observations that students had as they worked on their homework.

  2. Ask students to return to the characters they explored in their journals, and think about what has happened to them since the time period of the poem. Where would the characters be today?

  3. Remind students that the poem was written in 1959, nearly fifty years ago.

  4. Using the Basic Character Analysis Questions if computers are available or the second question on the Gathering Ideas about a Golden Shovel Character sheet, ask students to respond to the questions for the future versions of the characters they have chosen.

  5. Allow students 10–15 minutes to write their responses.

  6. Arrange students in small groups, and ask them to share their journal entries with one another.

  7. Have each group make a list of futures that group members imagined. Ask groups to create a running list on chart paper or on the board.

  8. In the groups, ask students to discuss the reasons for the futures that they choose, and how the futures related to the details in the poem.

  9. When groups have finished discussion, gather the class and have each group summarize the futures that members imagined.

  10. Review all the lists and ask students to comment on the overall futures that the class imagined, looking for similarities and differences.

  11. Introduce the John Ulrich’s comments on the poem from the Favorite Poem Project, an audio clip that describes how the speaker sees situation in his life as similar to those in the poem.

  12. Play the Ulrich audio clip for the class. If computers are not available, students can read copies of Transcript of John Ulrich’s comments on the poem.

  13. When the clip finishes, ask for immediate responses and encourage connections to any similar situations that students identified in their groups.

  14. Share the assignment and rubric that students are to complete in response to the poem and answer any questions that they have about the activity.

  15. For homework, ask students to complete the remaining questions on the Gathering Ideas about a Golden Shovel Character sheet in their journals.

Session Three

  1. Address any immediate responses to the homework activity and review the rubric with the class.

  2. Arrange students in pairs, and ask students to exchange their responses to the Gathering Ideas about a Golden Shovel Character sheet.

  3. In addition to providing each other general feedback, ask students to respond to these three specific questions:

    • What was the most interesting thing about your partner’s responses, and why?

    • How well did the different ideas about the character fit together? Were there any details that seemed out of place? Explain your response.

    • What would you most like to know about the future of the character that your partner has explored?
  4. Ask partners to prepare a 1–2 sentence introduction to each other’s character to share with the class. A sample introduction might be “When one of his friends from the Golden Shovel was killed, Jim decided to change his life. He is now retired Marine officer, working as an insurance agent. He has a wife, 3 children, and 2 granddaughters.”

  5. Once student pairs have responded to each other and prepared information to share, gather the class together and have students introduce their partners’ characters to the class, round robin style.

  6. When students have finished sharing, invite discussion of similarities and differences about the futures that students have imagined for the characters.

  7. Review the tips included on the assignment sheet. Spend some time discussing how audience and purpose can influence voice and tone.

  8. Use the Sample Scenarios or scenarios from students to discuss specific ways that audience and purpose influence voice. For each scenario, ask students to identify the appropriate tone for the character to use and discuss likely formats for the message. For example, the Baptist minister might share his story as a sermon, the rap star might give a magazine interview and include song lyrics, and the social worker’s story might be published as a transcript of the meeting with the student.

  9. If time allows, have students return to pairs and brainstorm details on audience, purpose, and tone. Encourage students to identify formats for the stories as well.

  10. For homework, ask students to compose a first draft of their characters’ story, in response to the assignment. If time remains during the session, students can begin the drafting process in class. If needed, allow an additional class session for students to work on their drafts in class.

Session Four

  1. Review the assignment and the rubric with the class, answering any questions that students have.

  2. Pass out the Peer Review Questions, and connect the questions to the assignment and rubric so that students understand the purpose of the questions.

  3. Arrange students in pairs, have them exchange work, and use the Peer Review Questions to guide their response to each other’s work.

  4. Circulate through the classroom, providing support and feedback as appropriate.

  5. Once students finish, gather the class and invite comments and questions.

  6. Discuss how to use the feedback from the Peer Review Questions with students. For instance, if the reviewer’s description of the character in response to the first question does not include an important detail about the character, the author can revise to make that detail clearer.

  7. For homework, ask students to complete a polished version of their work to submit during the next class session. Again, if needed, allow an additional class session for students to work on their drafts in class.

Session Five

  1. Pass out the Golden Shovel Project Reflection Sheet, and ask students to reflect on the following questions:

    • Why did you choose the future that you did for the character?

    • What was your favorite part of the assignment?

    • What would you change or do differently if you had more time to work on the project?
  2. When students finish with their reflections, ask each student to choose a paragraph or two to read to the class.

  3. To ensure that students are ready, ask volunteers to share their sections, rotating among students until everyone has shared.

  4. Encourage supportive comments and feedback (even applause) in response to the readings and the assignment.

  5. Collect the work at the end of the session along with the Reflection Sheets.


  • Encourage multimodal responses by inviting students to have their characters create documentary videos, podcasts, cartoons, and so forth. To clarify connections between the pieces and the character, students can keep an artist’s journal from the perspective of the character.

  • Ask students to choose some place from their own community, as Brooks does, and imagine the thoughts of the people who visit the place. Students can write their own poems, using “We Real Cool” as a model.

  • For more in-depth coverage of the structure of Brooks’ poem, use the EDSITEment lesson plan The Impact of a Poem's Line Breaks: Enjambment and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

  • Have student pairs use the Profile Publisher to create profiles of a character in the poem both at the time of the poem and at a date in the future.
  • Have students do an author study of Gwendolyn Brooks using the biographical information and other resources available at Gwendolyn Brooks: Online Resources, from the Library of Congress or the ReadWriteThink Calendar entries on Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Collect students’ responses to the Reflection Sheets with their assignments, and use the reflections to shape your feedback on students’ work. As you compare students’ work to the Rubric for the Golden Shovel Assignment, comment on connections between reflections and work (i.e., reinforcing that a student’s favorite part is the strongest part of the piece, agreeing with the changes that the student suggests making if more time were available).

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