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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Phenomenal Woman: Lesson Plans to Explore the Work of Maya Angelou

By Monica Fuglei Maya Angelou Inspired Lesson Plans

The passing of American icon Dr. Maya Angelou makes this an excellent time to ensure that students of all ages learn about her work and life. Here are five lesson plans for a variety of age groups that can help you teach students about Maya Angelou’s poetry and prose.

Maya Angelou lesson plans for elementary school classes

While Angelou’s subject matter is often too mature for elementary school, she wrote a variety of books for grade school students. “Kofi and His Magic” and “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” are two fun ways to engage students with Dr. Angelou’s writing.

Kofi and His Magic

“Kofi and His Magic” introduces students to an African village that specializes in the production of kente cloth, an iconic woven fabric known for its bright colors and geometric patterns. Read the text to the students, then briefly introduce the concept of kente cloth, discussing the importance of shapes and colors as their own form of storytelling. 

Have students create their own strip of kente cloth, either through drawing, pasting strips/shapes of paper, or even using yarn. Older elementary students could be introduced to basic weaving for this assignment.

As students create their designs, discuss different methods of storytelling. Leave time at the end of the lesson to allow students to share the stories they’ve woven into their kente cloth. Connect student strips into a large class tapestry to display.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

For another elementary-appropriate lesson, read the picture book “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” to students. After the first reading, tell students to think about the voice of the poem and carefully write down or draw pictures of the things that do not frighten the speaker while you reread the text to them. Ask them how they think the speaker of the poem would read different parts or pages.

Play them a recording of Dr. Angelou reading the book. Sitting in a circle, have them think together of things they are not frightened of and what their own powers are to chase away their fears.

This could work really well as an introductory exercise for kindergarteners or first graders, particularly if they are paired up with students from a higher grade in their school. Buddy pairs could think together of things that are scary about school and how to chase away those fears. Have students draw their own pages to create a class book to read together in the future.

Maya Angelou lesson plans for middle schoolers

Dr. Angelou’s poetry gives students a chance to explore identity, equality, and destiny while finding personal connections to her work. Here are  lessons centered on two poems, “Still I Rise” and “A Brave and Startling Truth,” that both middle and high school students can enjoy.

Still I Rise

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, created a series of classroom activities and ELA projects built around Dr. Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.”

After reading the text and listening to it as a class, students can break into groups or pair up to analyze the poem. Activities include:

  • Identifying different techniques used to create imagery, such as onomatopoeia and metaphor
  • Examining how the author’s words convey her feelings on leadership, gender equity, and struggle
  • Interpreting the meaning of each stanza and how they combine to form a whole

In addition to critical reading and analysis, Teaching Tolerance provides:

  • Essential questions for students to answer such as, “How have my background and experiences contributed to the person I have become?”
  • A writing project that asks students to examine their own voice and how they’d like to use it in the future
  • An inner circle/outer circle classroom discussion protocol
  • Suggestions for forming a student group that helps students overcome adversity

Challenging students to examine the gifts their own ancestry gave them helps them apply critical thinking in identifying how they can “rise” in their classroom, school, and neighborhood. This lesson connects well with a service learning project that allows them to enact those ancestral talents they discover and raise their voices together.

A Brave and Startling Truth

While this lesson can be used for students as young as seventh grade, it may have more profound influence on high school students. Have students read Angelou’s poem “A Brave and Startling Truth,” then listen to it as a class, read either by the teacher, classmates, or — preferrably — a recording of the author.

  • Give students an opportunity to reflect for a few minutes on the poem and encourage them to annotate their copy with their initial reactions, questions, or points of confusion. Maurice Elias has an excellent set of stanza-specific questions for students to reflect on in small groups.
  • Once the groups have had a chance to work and reflect, come back together as a larger class discussion sharing each groups’ discoveries. Allow non-group members to interact and reflect once each group has finished presenting their ideas.
  • As a class, discuss the final stanza and inquire as to the brave and startling truth Angelou is attempting to present.
  • Taking a step outside of the text, have students expand and modernize the ideas by considering, either through discussion or an in-class writing assignment, what that brave and startling truth means to them today and in their future.

Once students have identified their goals or dreams for the future, you could consider asking them to put it into action through a service learning project that allows for them to act as agents of change and help themselves, their classmates, and their communities “come to it.”

Maya Angelou lesson plans for high school students

High school students have the opportunity to engage with what is arguably Dr. Angelou’s most famous work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” In addition to studying the text, this lesson allows students to examine this book’s history of being challenged or banned in schools.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

This lesson plan is best for upper high school students and explores the importance of autobiography and intertextual play of poetry and prose found in the book. Have students discuss the switching between genres and how it is used to highlight different aspects of the text. 

For homework or an in-class writing assignment, consider challenging them to write pieces of their own story in both prose and poetic form, then weave them together for a larger piece using techniques and purposes similar to Angelou’s. Have students explain the point and purposes of their own transitions from prose to poetry.

For further work on this text, consider exploring this book’s routine banning due to the topical issues brought forth in Angelou’s history. What issues or topics in the text might inspire these bannings? How do role models and her considerable experiences influence her growth?  What other autobiographical texts describe similar struggles and triumphs?

Regardless of the specific lesson you choose, weaving the material and biography of Dr. Angelou into lesson plans will be a worthwhile endeavor. At Angelou’s memorial service, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “In so many ways Maya Angelou knew us. She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear, our anger, our shame, and she assured us that in spite of it all, in fact because of it all, we were good.” By reading and exploring Angelou’s material, students can a little about an American icon and, hopefully, a lot about themselves.

 

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

Sources

Maya Angelou, Teaching Tolerance

Kente Cloth Strips, Kinder Art

Katherine Schulten, Teaching Maya Angelou With the New York Times, The Learning Network

Maurice Elias, Maya Angelou’s Poetry: A Lesson in Service, History, SEL, and Civics, Edutopia

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