Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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

March 10, 2014
Photo credit: thepanamerican via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Editor's Note: Maya Angelou died on May 28, 2014. This post offers an activity for students to delve into her powerful poem, "A Brave and Startling Truth."

With National Poetry Month just a few weeks away, you may have already started planning. Exposing our students to the powerful words and images of Maya Angelou's poetry builds their skills in reading, character education, vocabulary, civics, history, and humanity. Deeply exploring the topics and themes found in Angelou's poetry can be inspiring to students, and even life changing.

Below is an activity that can be used with students starting in seventh grade, but will be most appropriate for high school students. It's easily aligned with language arts standards and provides opportunities for building students SEL skills in group work, leadership, communication, emotional awareness, empathy, and problem solving.

The Lesson: Step-by-Step

Tell student that over the next few days, they will learn about Angelou's message. Then provide each student with a copy of her poem, "A Brave and Startling Truth." Explain to them that you've divided it into six parts. Place them into small groups and assign each group with one of the first five parts. Finally, explain that this "may be the most difficult and important assignment you have ever had."

Step #1: listen to Maya Angelou deliver the poem or read it aloud to students. Have them read it again silently.

Step #2: Ask students to look up the words they don't know in the part that their group has been assigned.

Step #3 Have students work in their groups to figure out what their part means, writing down their thoughts and interpretations. Groups should pay special attention to the question linked to their part:

  • Part 1: What do you think the brave and startling truth might be?
  • Part 2: Who is the object of hostility, hate, and scorn?
  • Part 3: What are some of the opposites Maya Angelou uses in Part 3 and what is the point she is trying to make? Is she being optimistic or pessimistic?
  • Part 4: Why does she mention all of these natural wonders and how many of them had you heard of before now?
  • Part 5: What is she saying about people? Is she being optimistic or pessimistic?

Time for Class Discussion

After each group has done its part, have each group present, in the order of the poem, the words they learned and then discuss the meaning of their section with the rest of the class.

After all the groups have presented, ask everyone to read Part 6 and think about the question for Part 6: What is the brave and starting truth that is the message of the poem and what does this have to do with the United Nations?

Follow by asking them what they think the brave and startling truth means for them, for their time in high school, and their future?

"A Brave and Startling Truth" by Maya Angelou

[part 1]We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

[part 2]And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

[part 3]When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And our children can dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of sexual abuse

[part 4]When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

[part 5]When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

[part 6]When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, we are the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

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