Students find personal connection with video poems
Here’s what you’ll find in this post: 1) links to an award-winning documentary project that features Alabama residents reciting “Song of Myself”; 2) videos from the Whitman, Alabama project and a description of the assignment I created inspired by the Alabama project; 3) a reflection of how I’ll change this project for next time; 4) the handout I used with my students available for purchase
For the backstory, start reading in the next paragraph. To cut to the essentials, scroll down to where you see this picture:
What does it mean to be an American? How was the American identity formed? Those were two essential questions I discussed with my junior (grade 11) English students last year during my unit on Transcendentalism and the American Identity. In this unit, we discussed how the works and philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman broke tradition to sever the reliance on European cultures and customs to create a new national American identity.
During that unit in March, I looked for a creative way to help my students appreciate the contemporary relevance of the poetry of Walt Whitman, the final writer we studied in the unit. Whitman’s major work was his Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry that, among other works, included his 52-verse poem “Song of Myself.”
According to this article on the Library of Congress webpage, “The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history.” Based on that assessment, as an English teacher I can’t overlook the influence that Whitman made on the shaping of the American identity. After all, that was the notion that had compelled me to include Whitman in our Transcendentalism unit in the first place.
Indeed, Whitman’s poetry pervades not only American history, but our contemporary and pop culture as well. According to this 2017 article from the University of Rochester Newscenter:
Of course, with resources like this article, I could easily show students last March that Whitman resonates in our culture.
However, because I still desired for them to make a personal connection with his work, I kept researching for ways to do just that. Beyond knowing, for example, that Whitman shows up in the TV series Breaking Bad, or in a Levi’s commercial, as the Newscenter article later explains, how can students relate to Whitman on a personal level? That’s what I was really trying to find out and what I hoped to provide for my students in some type of creative assignment. So I kept looking for ideas online.
And then I stumbled upon something amazing: “Whitman, Alabama.”
One winter weekend, I unearthed an interesting website called Whitman, Alabama that featured the work of American journalist and filmmaker Jennifer Crandall and her production team interviewing and recording ordinary Alabamans reciting verses from Whitman’s infamous “Song of Myself.” (If you’re wondering why Alabama was chosen, Crandall explains here.)
Crandall’s background led her to explore the American identity through the lens of Alabama citizens. Part white and part Chinese, her website reveals her desire to explore themes of identity and connection.
According to Crandall’s website, the Whitman, Alabama project is an “experiment in using documentary and poetry to reveal the threads that tie us together — as people, as states, and as a nation.” The more I looked at the Whitman, Alabama website the more I realized how Crandall’s concept could dovetail nicely with the essential questions of my Transcendentalism and the American Identity unit.
From the website, we understand Crandall’s goal with her documentary series: “inviting people to look into a camera and share a part of themselves through the words of Walt Whitman. The 19th-century poet’s “Song of Myself” is a quintessential reflection of our American identities.”
Bingo, I thought. This is perfect.
Intrigued, I clicked a few of the “Song of Myself” video links on this page of her site and was instantly mesmerized.
And then I knew I’d found my assignment: My students needed to make their own Whitman, Alabama-style videos!
These gems from Crandall’s series speak for themselves. For sure, the variety of the project’s participants represents Whitman’s love of the diversity of the American people. Crandall works with young couples, an airline pilot, a musician, an actress, a plumber, young families, a judge, and others, to reflect the full gamut of American society.
Below are links to the three videos I showed my students during class to introduce the project. While there are many more online to watch either on the Whitman, Alabama website or YouTube, I thought the three videos below would work well as mentor texts to capture the overall flavor of Crandall’s project.
This is the first video I showed to my students. It’s probably the most well-known of Whitman’s verses from the poem with these memorable opening lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Take a look:
Beautiful! Students loved hearing this woman read the poem with such expression! Here’s the next video I showed in class:
Wasn’t that precious? This video engaged my students even more. It was fun to watch this little girl and her grandmother interact and laugh spontaneously with the film crew as they started and stopped to reshoot verse 46.
Here’s the last of the three videos I showed my students. It features a mechanic reading verse 39. This one really appealed to many of the boys in my classes, especially those who, like the subject in the video below, were unfamiliar with the influence of Whitman.
This video was the perfect one to end on. It seemed to totally captivate everyone in the room, and I even found myself tearing up at the mechanic’s sincerity and honesty. Here he is minding his own business, working hard at his job, and — oh, yeah — reciting poetry by some dude named Walt Whitman.
I think what I love most about the Whitman, Alabama project is its spontaneity and the demographic variety of subjects Crandall and her team showcased. That diversity explains why Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is the jewel of 19th-century American poetry: the poem that began as a personal expression of Whitman’s life evolved into an expression of what it means to be American, whether we live in Alabama, Oregon, Kansas, or Maine.
“Song of Myself,” the poem that began as a personal expression of Whitman’s life evolved into an expression of what it means to be American, whether we live in Alabama, Oregon, Kansas, or Maine.Tweet
So, you can probably guess the assignment I created. I asked my students to make a video of someone they knew reading a verse from “Song of Myself.”
And now for the results… here are three videos made by my students!
This first one is probably my favorite because it’s recorded outside by a student (Riley V.) and her grandmother. Riley chose verse 1 from “Song of Myself.” (used with permission)
Below is another student’s (Aliychiyah L.) video using verse 17. (used with permission)
Below is the final video I’ll include here. It features Ashley C’s. father reading verse 51. (used with permission)
Nearly all of my 26 juniors (except for two) eagerly turned in this assignment. While these three videos captured the essence of the assignment, many others did as well, and that’s a huge plus. The project’s inherent spontaneity lends an honesty to each video and also assures student success.
However, like any assignment, there are always things I want to do differently next time. Here’s my list as it looks right now:
- Require readers to be doing something related to their job or hobby. This might cause them to relax a little and read more naturally. Even just having someone hold a coffee cup will help them loosen up.
- Avoid the “person talking against a wall” syndrome. Encourage kids to go outside. Even merely angling the chair the reader is sitting in will add interest.
- Adhere to deadlines better to better avoid more than one student choosing the same verse. This year with COVID, I literally had no late work policy and kids turned things in largely at their convenience (or so it seemed at the time). Many of those late students didn’t tell me their verse choice until it was too late and I had a handful choose the same verse somehow. While there’s nothing really wrong with that, I wanted to cover more of Whitman’s monumental poem than we did.
- Advise kids to read their verses in their entirety before making their choices. Whitman is known for writing about sexuality and the human body, so to avoid an awkward situation, students really need to take their time choosing and, again, let me know their choice so I’m aware and can make changes if needed.
- Encourage students to memorize their verses. Actress Curtia Torbet reads Verse 38 in several modes of expression and gives a breath-taking reading your kids will enjoy. See it here.
- And last but not least: Next year, I’d like to diversify the authors within this unit. Could there be a way to also work in Langston Hughes’ “I Too Sing America”? What about women transcendentalists, such as Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott? I’m sure I’ll have this figured out for next time.
This project will no doubt change in more ways by next year. I guess you could say it’s a work in progress… much like America itself, come to think of it. However, based on this initial experience, I know this project will have another “go” next year.
What I love about this assignment:
- It connects to my essential questions: What does it mean to be an American? How was the American identity formed?
- It incorporates video and poetry!
- It offers students a break from the traditional essay, and
- It demonstrates the essence of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
So thank you, Jennifer Crandall and team, for capturing “the quintessential reflection of our American identities” through Whitman’s poetry. Your idea inspired this project at my small rural high school, and while there are changes to be made for next time, I am beyond excited about this first attempt.
I’ve made a PDF of the handout I used for this assignment available at this link on my TpT store. If you use this handout and/or have your students do this project, please let me know how it goes by leaving a message on my Contact page.
Thanks for reading again this week!
Have any thoughts or ideas or suggestions for this project? How do you demonstrate the relevance of pivotal 19th-century writers like Walt Whitman? Leave a comment below or on my Contact page.
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