4 Individual and Collective Nationalities in poems by Elhillo, Kamara, and Burroughs

Authors: Mary Beth Cancienne, Hayes Davis, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Brian Hannon, T.J. Hendrix

Target Group: High School

Learning Goals

  • Introduce students to contemporary poetry that intentionally shares themes of identity, collective identity, patriotism, and activism.
  • Provide a historical lens through which to view poetry (finding the real-life connections that fuel the work).

Common Core Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text…contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Essential Questions for this Unit

  • What symbols do we choose to represent ourselves?
  • How do these poems use various parts of speech to develop their argument?
  • What connections can you make between one of the poems and your life? What connections can we make across these three poems?

Understand, Know, Do (UKD) Learning Objectives

By engaging with Black poetry, the students will:


  • Poetry is an artistic form of self-expression that captures experiences of the individual and collective identity and can evoke agency.
  • Poetry by Black authors is varied and diverse and is infused in the wider worlds of poetry.
  • Poetry by Black authors is embedded in the larger categories of poets and poetry.
  • Participation in group discussions provides an opportunity to learn from others, including an opportunity to understand different viewpoints.
  • Using multiple sources of information (fiction and nonfiction) produces a more complete understanding of a topic.


  • How to identify the key ideas of the poems, such as identity, collective identity, and patriotism.
  • How to use textual clues to answer inferential questions and create meaning.
  • How to compare and contrast poems to make thematic connections between the poems.
  • How to evaluate the poet’s use of grammar, usage, and mechanics and its impact on tone.
  • How to analyze poems for poetry devices such as symbolism, structure (haiku), diction, allusion, and syntax to determine how they add meaning to the poem.
  • How to interpret information presented in diverse media formats.


  • Create a pledge poem that includes rich diction (word choice) and the language of agency.
  • Create a one-sentence poem that references one’s culture and community.
  • Create a love letter poem.
  • Revise poems using a multi-step writing process (prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing).


Day One – Safia Elhillo “self-portrait with no flag” (Furious Flower 2019, pp. 36-37)

To begin this unit, lead students through a reading of the Elhillo poem and a discussion of what it means to make a pledge.

Activities (45-50 minutes)

Warm-Up: Present a flag to your students. Ask, “What is this? What does it represent?” Briefly discuss their answers. Instruct students to reflect in writing: What does it mean to “pledge” yourself to a flag? (10 minutes)

Read out loud or have students quietly read the History of the Pledge of Allegiance (5 minutes)

Quickly discuss “symbolism” after presenting its definition, using this question: “How might our feelings about a flag change depending on what it represents for us?” (5 minutes)

Read the poem “self-portrait with no flag” by Safia Elhillo aloud to the class, or play this recording (poem starts at 0:56). Next, ask for a student to read the poem, and ask the class to listen for the following: adjectives, verbs, nouns, punctuation, capitalization, and spaces/pauses. After the student reads the poem out loud, invite students to the board to annotate the poem based on what you asked them to listen for during the second reading. (10 minutes)

Hold a class discussion of the poem, focusing on these questions: (10 minutes)

  • How do the parts of speech add to the tone of the poem?
  • What does the lack of punctuation and standard capitalization contribute to the poem?
  • What do the pauses (quickly define Caesura) in the poem add? 

Ask your students to write using this prompt: Using the poem as inspiration, write your own poem about what you pledge allegiance to—what are the essential elements of your life you wish to honor? (5-10 minutes)


BREAK (or end of class period)

Day Two – Yalie Kamara “A Haiku Love Letter for Gabby Douglas” (Furious Flower 2019, p. 53)

Today, lead students through a reading of the Kamara poem, focusing on representing a nation and the complication of that nation’s standards not aligning with our own or with the way we choose to present ourselves.

Activities (45 minutes)

Warm-Up: Ask students for three takeaways from the discussion from the day before—our notion of pledging ourselves to a flag. Tell them that during this lesson, we will ask a slightly different question: Who gets to represent America? (5 minutes)

Ask students to reflect quietly in writing using these questions as a prompt:

  • Is there an image of a “typical” American?
  • Is that image considered “beautiful?”
  • What is included in that image?
  • Does that image differ for different people?

Discuss their answers after they write. (10 minutes)

Ask students: What are the standards of beauty? Do those standards apply equally to everyone? Discuss their answers. (5 minutes)

Watch these videos of Olympic coverage and criticism of Gabby Douglas’ hair. (5 minutes)

Ask students to turn to a partner and discuss their reactions to the videos. (5 minutes)

Read aloud “A Haiku Love Letter for Gabby Douglas,” or show this video of the poet reciting it, and then ask for a student to read the poem. After the second reading, ask students:

  • What do the descriptions in the poem help you to see and/or imagine?
  • What do you think about the poem?
  • What do you wonder about the poem?

Discuss their answers (10 minutes)

Ask students to write about the connection between the fifth stanza/haiku and the poem “self-portrait with no flag.” (5 minutes)

Tell students that tomorrow’s lesson will ask them to continue “unpacking” the poem, define and discuss haiku, and draw connections between the two poems. Assign the articles: “How Natural Black Hair at Work Became a Civil Rights Issue” by Chanté Griffin and “Gabby Douglas’ Hair Draws Criticism” by Jemele Hill for homework.

Day Three: Kamara Continued

Today’s lesson will continue unpacking the Kamara poem, focusing on notions of otherness and rebellion against what traditionally gets defined as “American.”

Activities (45 minutes)

Distribute this online worksheet that students will use to analyze “Haiku Love Letter to Gabby Douglas.” Students will be asked to discuss three different elements of the poem (structure, diction, details, etc.) and how they contribute to Gabby’s expression of “rebellion” or “otherness” against what traditionally falls under the concept of “America.” (20 minutes)

When students are done with the worksheet, lead them in a discussion of the poem that surfaces the following: 

  • The poem’s form: “haiku”
  • Literary/Poetic devices that are used in the poem.

Ask students to connect the articles that they read for homework to the poem. (15 minutes)

Ask students to write their own love letter to someone who they see as heroic and believe has been wronged in some way. Have them choose a specific person. (10 minutes)

Day Four: Kamara & Elhillo Paired

Today’s lesson will ask students to draw connections between the two poems they have studied during days 1-3. 

Before class, print 3-4 copies of both poems from days one and two in large font (14-16 point), and mount both poems side by side on large Post-it pads in various locations around the room. Provide markers at each station.

Activities (45 minutes)

Warm-Up: Divide the class into as many groups as you have locations of paired poems. Instruct students to, in their groups, move to one station, read the poems side by side, and annotate them based on the prompt “What thematic connections do you see between these two poems?” When they have finished annotating their own poems, instruct them to do a “gallery walk,” during which they read other groups’ annotations, noticing similarities and departures from their annotations. (15 minutes)

Have students return to their seats. Lead a discussion of the thematic connections between the two poems. (10 minutes)

Transition to CM Burroughs’ “Our People II” (Furious Flower 2019, p. 91).

Ask students, “What is meant by the phrases ‘My people’ and/or ‘Our people?'” Discuss their answers. Next, ask them to write their reflections on the prompt, “How are individual and collective identities formed? Who would be your people?” Discuss their answers. (10 minutes)

Hand out copies of CM Burroughs’ “Our People II” (or project it on screen) and read it aloud. Next, ask a student to read the poem out loud. After the student reads the poem, ask the following questions:

  • What do the descriptions in the poem help you to see and/or imagine?
  • What do you think about the poem?
  • What do you wonder about the poem?

Discuss their answers (10 minutes)

Inform students that tomorrow’s lesson will continue unpacking the poem and pair it with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” Assign this essay for homework.


BREAK (or end of class period)

Day Five – CM Burroughs “Our People II” (Furious Flower 2019, p. 91)

Activities (45 minutes)

Warm-Up: Show this video. Ask students if they have done this dance or another dance that involves a room full of people doing similar dance moves. Ask them to brainstorm other group activities that are rooted in a particular culture and evoke a collective identity. (10 minutes)

Divide students into groups (or assign groups); provide a timing guideline and ask each group to answer one the following questions:

  • What sense of collective identity does the speaker invoke? Find specific language, syntax, punctuation, etc. in the poem that speaks to the notion of a collective.
  • Collective identities are sometimes built on shared culture. What culture(s) do the people in this poem share? Name specific examples. Mecca is an allusion in the poem. How is it used?
  • What aspects of your culture are similar to the dances, gestures, food, phrases in this poem?
  • Read the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. How does this poem relate to Burroughs’ poem? What is the collective in Brooks’ poem? Is it a different collective from Burroughs’ poem?
  • (Optional) Students can also be given this CM Burroughs quote to consider:
    • “Those [the poems “Our People I” and “Our People II”] were particular because I was writing toward Gwendolyn Brooks. It was a way to address her by imitating her gaze and her preoccupations with the we, the collective, and the collective concerns. I needed to be more inclusive in those poems, to try and articulate some larger truths or to assert truth that was in harmony with hers.” See the full interview here.

After group work, lead discussion of the poem using the four questions; continue the discussion by asking students for their responses to the article they read for homework and the question “How does the poem being one sentence change how you read it?” (20 minutes)

Instruct students to write their own one-sentence poem about collective identity, using specific examples of shared culture and family experiences. (15 minutes)



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The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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