Words Have Power

Learning and Writing from Poems and Songs of Enslaved People

This unit introduces students to a unique set of primary sources: poetry written by enslaved people living and working in the United States during the time of the Civil War. Students will practice analysis of poems and songs written about emancipation and freedom by enslaved and formerly enslaved people and will create and perform their own poetry or songs that connect to the content and/or personal connections to perseverance.

*All links to suggested resources are included in the What You Need section below. Click here to go directly to the Materials and Resources page.*

Common Core State Standards for ELA

Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other text
By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

C3 Standards for Social Studies/History

D2.His.1.6-8. Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.
D2.His.4.6-8. Analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
D2.His.7.9-12. Explain how the perspectives of people in the present shape interpretations of the past.

Learning ObjectivesCite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text.
Identify how the historical context informs analysis of the text.
Analyze Civil War era poems and songs written by enslaved, formerly enslaved and Black freedmen, and explore how their words shape our understanding of life in the U.S. during our Civil War.
Create and perform poems based on prompts or address concepts/ideas that describe obstacles overcome or express meaningful aspects of their lives.
Essential QuestionsHow do the poems and songs of enslaved people and freedmen help shape our understanding of life in the United States during our Civil War? After? Today?
How does understanding the historical context of a poem/song influence our ability to analyze and make personal connections to it?
How does creative writing help people share their experiences?
Prepared ByGradeLength
Kelly Rowland with contributions by Cynthia Webb-Manly6-810 classes ( Poetry Preloading Optional)

Classroom Activities

  • Poetry Preloading
    This lesson provides students with background and understanding of basic oratory skills- podium points, warm and cool feedback and the Rhetorical Triangle Poster.
  • Day One
    Anticipatory Set – Teacher introduces poetry using Amanda Gorman’s “ The Hill We Climb.”
  • Day Two and Three
    Direct Instruction – Feel free to Create your own annotation guides as a class, use a guide that your school or district already has in place or you can use the annotation guides below as follows:
  • Day Four and Five
    Guided Practice – This activity allows students to take the skills learned from Activity 1 and practice them with their chosen primary source.
  • Day Six, Seven and Eight
    Independent and Group Practice – Drawing from the previous lessons, students create their own poems from given prompts. They will rehearse and perform their work for an audience of their teacher’s choosing.
  • Day Nine
    Discussion and Reflection

Poetry Preloading

(50 Min) Introduction to Podium Points, Warm Cool Feedback

In order to complete the performance portion of the lesson, students should have basic oratory skills. Please view the videos and share the information below with students prior to the performance piece of the lesson.

The teacher will introduce Podium Points and Warm and Cool Feedback using the videos and anchor charts linked below. The teacher will explain that these skills will be used throughout the analysis, creation and performance stages of the lessons.

Video: The Ford’s Theatre Approach to Oratory | Podium Points

Video: The Ford’s Theatre Approach to Oratory | Warm and Cool Feedback

Video: The Ford’s Theatre Approach to Oratory | The Rhetorical Triangle


  • What makes someone a powerful public speaker?
  • How does the speaker’s purpose and intended message influence their choices for tone, pace and emphasis?

Day 1

(50 min), Anticipatory Set

Watch: Video: The Hill We Climb

  • What do you notice about Amanda’s performance? Use the Podium Points to discuss: eye contact, pace, emphasis, posture, presence and any other verbal or physical Podium Points.
  • What warm and cool feedback could you offer Amanda? (Reference the poster here).

Read: Transcript: The Hill We Climb

Class Discussion Prompts:

  • Who is Amanda Gorman?
  • What is her poem about? How does it make you feel?
  • When/where was it delivered?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What can you infer about the author’s/speaker’s purpose from knowing the date, time and audience?

Day 2 and 3

(110 min), Direct Instruction

Note: Before beginning the lesson below, spend five to ten minutes discussing the importance of reading, analyzing and interpreting the words of a person or group of people’s lived experiences. Ask the students to share a song or poem that moves them and why. Explore how those words become more powerful expressed through poetry and song. Introduce the topic of poetry and song by those who were enslaved or formerly enslaved and begin the lesson below.

Distribute the William Slade poem to students. Look at the title, poem and notes.

William Slade’s poemThe Slave to His Star

  • Students will read along as the teacher reads The Slave to His Star.
  • Students will read independently and annotate, focusing on unknown words and phrases.

1. Feel free to create your own annotation guides as a class, use a guide that your school or district already has in place or you can use the annotation guides below as follows:

2. Annotation Example as follows: The Slave to His Star: (can annotate further than the example demonstrates).

  • Discuss as a class: vocabulary, content, author’s background, author’s purpose.
  • Share out words and phrases that the students have annotated.
  • Discuss the author and context of each poem using Poem Analysis Graphic Organizer.

1. Discussion Prompts:

  • What is this poem about? How does it make you feel?
  • When/where was it delivered?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Can you infer anything from the date, time and audience?
  • What were the speaker’s goals?
  • What did the speaker hope to accomplish or convey by sharing this poem?
  • What is the message?
  • How does this poem resonate/reflect events and emotions?

Exit Ticket: Journal Response (Example: Answer in writing three of the questions listed above).

Day 4 and 5

Start of content

(110 minutes), Guided Practice

  • In groups of three or four, students will choose a poem or song from the Guided Practice Resource List (see materials and resources section) and annotate selected poems/songs, research the author and background of the poem and complete the graphic organizer for the selected poem or song. (Poem Analysis Graphic Organizer.)
  • Check for Understanding: Groups will present their completed work from the Poem Analysis graphic organizer.

Day 6, 7 and 8

(110+ minutes) Independent and Group Practice

Students will perform poems in class, school-wide or community showcase. If an in-person event is not possible, students can create and share their performances using Flip Grid or similar platform.

  • Teachers should create rubrics based on school/district needs.
  • Adapt as needed based on class time and student ability.

Writing Prompts:

Note: Some examples are below. Teachers should create prompts based on class discussion.

  • What struggles/obstacles have you overcome in your life?
  • How do you cherish your freedom?
  • What motivates you to push through hard times?

Day 9

Closing: Journal Reflection (student notebooks)

  • How do you see your poetry impacting future historians? What can they learn from you about life today?


  • Group analysis of poem/song
  • Poem and Performance
  • Self created rubric

What You Need