You may recognize the title above from Shane Koyczan’s passionate performance of his poem at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. I had forgotten about it until recently. Our Learning Coordinators presented his poem “To This Day” during a recent session that I attended. “To This Day” is a powerful poem about bullying and moving beyond it. This is a theme that has always resonated with me. In fact, on my way home from the session, I actually stopped at the bookstore and bought a copy of the graphic novel of this poem for myself. In reading it however, I knew that it was a bit mature for the Grade 5 class I was preparing to work with. So, I got reacquainted with Koyczan’s poem We Are More.
When I did a first read of the poem “We Are More”, I quickly realized there were some elements in it that the students may or may not have background knowledge on. Also, it’s a long poem, so what parts of it would I focus on? Would they know who the “number 9 and 99” were? Would they understand what he means by the line “we are young”? How many of the students would understand the reference to “Little Italy”?
When we select texts, it’s important to be purposeful about it by anticipating what might trip up students, what connections they might make between this and other books they have read, themes, stereotypes, other subject matters etc. In this case, the teacher was working on “Canadian Identity” in Social Studies. But how could we help student build a little background knowledge prior to reading?
In order to develop some background knowledge, we cut up images of Maurice Richard, a hockey sweater with number 99, a map of the world with colours indicating approximate country ages, a book entitled “Magic Words”, a street sign of “Little Italy” etc. Students found other students with similar images and proceeded to glue them together and begin their research, jotting notes around the image using classroom computers. This is an idea I borrowed from the same literacy session called “Tea Party”. Using images and having students come up with ideas before even attacking the text is a great strategy.
When done, each group had about 5 minutes to present what they found out about their image. After each presentation, we asked questions about how these images might be related to each other. It was fascinating to gather what students already knew or had learned. In fact, they actually gave us chills at some points as we started to shape the idea of Canadian identity. Some of what they said was so insightful and went way beyond what we were expecting. They were making connections to lessons the teacher had done in Social Studies, texts they had read in class and it was all generated by students. And we had not even touched the poem yet.
Following this, we played two versions of Shane’s poem. The first time showing his passionate performance, the second time with lyrics. You could see the kids recognize “their part” in the poem. Following this, the classroom teacher modeled “leaving tracks of her thinking” with the first part of the poem. She noted connections, background knowledge and what thinking and reacting she was doing as she read. Students returned to their groups and began leaving tracks of their thinking around the poem. We collected the responses and used them the next day, highlighting some of the thinking (annonymously) that students did. We also tracked which reading strategies they were using. In our analysis, the teacher and I recognized that the students did not do a lot of “synthesizing”. Perhaps the poem does not lend to this strategy?
Later, we asked the students to provide some feedback. For example – what other images should we have included? The CN tower and Canadian money were popular responses.
In the second day, we discussed that part of understanding “who we are” as Canadians is also about looking at our imperfections. Day two involved an observe/infer/I wonder activity about food sustenance issues in Nunavut. Students were definitely engaged in this piece. I shared with them my experiences of helping out a family by sending some items in the mail they were requesting. I won’t go into all the details, but the end of the lesson came back to Shane’s poem: We Are More. Part of our identity as Canadians is that we care for others. Furthermore, it’s an issue that has many perspectives to consider: the grocers, the Innuit people, the government, etc. We are more than the “one story” that can be told about us or an issue affecting many.
We ended our social justice themed session positively, with a “Kid President” video about how to change the world. Just a couple of hours ago, the “Kid President” posted the video below for Canadians. And if you listen closely, you might just head a few of Shane’s words in his message.
And I’m also reflecting on what “more” I could do with all of this next time I teach it. I only had two days, so I crammed a lot in. What text features or poetry techniques could I focus on? What more could I do in writing other than journal entries? What slam poetry about Canadian Identity could students create imitating Shane’s style?
And, I’m not one who is afraid to put it all out there. You can find a copy of the lesson we used here. It’s a beginning really that needs to be developed further.