Teach one of the greatest living poets.
In 2019, Joy Harjo became the first Native American poet laureate of the United States, a post she continues to hold in 2022. A member of the Mvskoke/Creek nation, Harjo has been writing poems, music, and memoir since the 1970s. Her poems celebrate the beauty and wisdom of the natural world while also reckoning with difficult histories of displacement, violence, and cultural erasure.
Here are three poems and accompanying classroom activities to get started teaching Joy Harjo, one of the United States' great living poets. All three of these mini-lessons incorporate many of the anchor standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
1. “Remember” by Joy Harjo
Summary: In this beautiful introduction to Harjo’s poetry, she entreats your students to think about what they can learn from the natural world and our connections to it and to each other.
Discussion Activity: Ask three students to read the poem aloud, one after the other. The first time, have students circle words or phrases that are repeated. The second time, have them underline images. The third time, ask them to begin to notice important main ideas. After students compare their observations in pairs or small groups, facilitate a class discussion focusing on how the poem uses structure to emphasize themes and how the images shape the poem’s message.
Writing Activity: Have students write fives lines of poetry, each one starting with the word “remember.” In these lines, they can share important lessons they’ve learned, ideas or truths that are important to them, or essential aspects of their heritage or worldview that they would like to share. Ask students to read these short poems aloud.
Delving Deeper: Explore a few Native American creation stories with your students. Discuss how the worldview of these stories is (or is not) reflected in “Remember.” Or, for an activity that connects this poem to a Shoshone water song, check out this activity from The Academy of American Poets.
2. “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo
Summary: In this poem, Harjo uses a kitchen table to symbolize all that binds a community together. Reading and discussing it will give your students a chance to reflect on similar symbols of strength and rootedness in their own lives, families, and communities.
Discussion Activity: Ask a student to read the poem aloud and ask listeners to underline any lines that stand out to them as powerful or important. Ask students to read the poem silently and select a favorite line, maybe from those they underlined or perhaps a new one they didn’t notice at first. Have students read their favorite line aloud, either in groups or as a class. Let them explain why their chosen line is their favorite.
Transition to a whole-class discussion where you use your students’ favorite lines to discuss the power of the table as the central image in the poem. What gives it its power? What roles do ritual, community, and relationships play in this poem? What is significant about the line “no matter what, we/must eat to live?”
Writing Activity: During the discussion, it is likely that your students will touch upon the idea that rituals and traditions, while being fun, get repeated because they transmit values that are deemed necessary for our growth and development. Ask students to write a few paragraphs about a ritual or tradition they participate in with their family or friends. Have them describe it, talk about what makes it fun or special, and reflect upon what it is meant to teach them. Have students share these reflections in groups to gain insight into the traditions and values important to their peers and give voice to their own.
Delving Deeper: For an activity that connects this poem to Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series photographs, check out this lesson plan from the American Academy of Poets.
3. “An American Sunrise” by Joy Harjo
Poem Summary: In “American Sunrise,” the speaker explores the pain of losing one’s land, culture, and opportunity but suggests that reforging these stolen connections is the way to a better future.
Discussion Activity: Ask a student to read “American Sunrise” aloud while listeners circle any words that indicate the speaker’s mood. In a second read-through, ask students to underline any words related to the speaker’s hopes and desires for the future. In small groups or as a class, have students discuss both the mood of the poem and the speaker’s hopes and desires, paying special attention to how these two elements connect.
Ask students to read this short history of The Mvskoke Nation and ask any clarifying questions. Then, read the poem aloud a third time. Ask students what they would add to their observations about the poem, given the new historical context. Finish by asking students to reflect on how their understanding of the poem was altered or enhanced by their historical research.
Writing Activity: In “American Sunrise,” Harjo writes about the loss of culture and land, the pain of displacement and erasure, and the legacies of violence and injustice. But she also ends on a hopeful note: we’re all connected, and we all carry wisdom, and if we remember this, there’s a chance the world will improve.
Ask your students to write down a list of social, cultural, or political topics important to them. Let them choose one and start listing reasons this issue matters. From this list, allow students to construct their own social justice poem where they examine a problem, consider its causes and legacies, and (if they want) speculate on how the injustice can be improved.
Delving Deeper: Have your students research and discuss the native land acknowledgment movement. If your school does not already have a land acknowledgment statement, your students could draft one.
Want More Poetry Resources?
Are you looking for more resources for teaching poetry? Check out our five mini-lessons on Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author