By Rachelle Green
For the month of February, I like to celebrate Black History Month. My English classes are full of presentations about African-American writers. With my creative writing class, I wanted to do something different. As the month approached, I thought about various activities I could do with the students. One day, the song “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West kept playing in my head. Kanye West included snippets of the song “Strange Fruit” in the song. As the day progressed, I could not get those snippets of the song out of my head. So, I went to Google. I looked up the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” I was so moved by the words; at that moment, I knew that I had to do something with them. I then went to YouTube and listened to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone sing the song. Nina Simone sang it with so much passion. I knew then that I had to come up with an activity that utilized the words in poetry form, but also in song.
The next day, I found a site, History is a Weapon, that put the lyrics into poetic form. I then went to YouTube again and found a video of Nina Simone singing “Strange Fruit” but also explaining her thoughts and feelings about the lyrics. After watching the video, I considered the video to be very “raw,” due to the images of people hanging from the tree. But, I knew that images were important to the message, and I had to show it. The following day, I presented the activity to my creative writing students.
Before I jumped into the activity, I did warn students that this activity is 100% raw- REAL. I began with one of the students reading the poem aloud to the class. We then went on to analyze it and explain how the lines and phrases contribute to the overall meaning of the poem. I again warned the students that we were going to listen/watch a YouTube video that was 100% raw- REAL. I told them that it does show bodies hanging from a tree. I gave all students an out -- or an opportunity to look away or put their heads down and just listen.
After a listening/watching, we had a brief discussion about the video. I expected a moment of silence afterwards (which happened). It’s a deep topic to explore. I then gave the task after our class discussion.
I had students create a 3 stanza poem that highlights the struggles that Blacks face or faced in this country. They used the poem that we read as a mentor text. Because this is such powerful and moving activity, if they did not follow exactly how the poem was written, I was fine with that. Let me tell you, the students came up with some great pieces of writing. They talked about various topics ranging from slavery to Trayvon Martin to “White Privilege.” So much can come out of this single activity.
With all activities, there is always room for improvement. Some questions I've reflected on:
1) Could this activity work in a regular English class?
2) Does this activity only fit in the month of February?
3) Could this activity create the same results if I took out the video?
4) What ways can this activity improve?
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Rachelle Green is an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She currently teaches tenth grade English and Creative Writing. She is in her second year of teaching, she says she still has much to learn. :-)
Rachelle is a member of WVCTE and hopes to hear back from YOU!