Crime and Poetry: Examining Crimes Against Humanity Through the Poetry of the Oppressed, Specifically Poetry from the African American Experience Through the Jim Crow Era, and The Holocaust

byCary A. Brandenberger


Over the last several years, as a teacher of writing, I have struggled with teaching voice. I have told my students numerous times that voice is the uniqueness of the writer that shines through in each piece that the writer creates. I have had my students try to identify voice in many different pieces throughout the year and I eventually had my students try to show their voice in their writing. However, when they began writing their own pieces, they inevitably relied on the safe but bland five-paragraph essay. Their essays were well organized and tended to follow the rules of Standard Written English, but they were voiceless. When I used the term voiceless to define their essays, my students had no idea what I meant. When I tried to explain it, I usually got the deer in the headlights look from the majority of the students in my classes. I explained to them that I ended up reading sixty-five variants of the same exact essay, because they all followed the same five-paragraph outline. As a teacher of writing, I felt that in some ways I was failing my students because I could not get them to break from the security of formulaic writing.

Teaching voice had become a struggle for me, just as writing with voice had become a struggle for my students. By the middle of the school year, my teaching of writing had boiled down to two essential questions: How do I teach voice, and how can I get my students to illuminate their writing with their unique voices?

Following the advice of a colleague, I began to include poetry as part of the writing process in my classroom. I allowed the students to write a formulaic essay as well as a poetic piece about the same topic. I required the students to eventually incorporate parts of the poem into the formulaic essay. The results were quite amazing. My students' essays started to show some uniqueness. The structures of the essays were still very formulaic, but most of the students were attempting to add their own voice. Once I realized that reading and writing poetry helped my students with their school writing assignment, I began incorporating poetry into almost all of my writing units. I stopped teaching poetry as a separate unit from all of my other reading and writing units.

Once I realized that poetry had become an invaluable vessel for voice, I decided to create a unit that focused on voice and poetry. I chose the title "Crime and Poetry" for two reasons. First, I am a firm believer that teenagers need to be taught empathy, and second, it fits into my already established umbrella theme. I have found year after year that my students in particular are completely apathetic toward their fellow man. I see it in class everyday, as I walk down the hallways, and in the cafeteria. In general, my students in the career and vocational High School I teach in truly seem to care less if a classmate is hurt, either physically or emotionally. I know, it seems harsh to make such generalizations, but an air of apathy has permeated my school and continues to get worse year after year. This generalization became even more concrete when our entire faculty and staff requested that our school-wide focus for the upcoming year be centered on student behavior and attitude. Furthermore, the umbrella theme of my tenth grade English curriculum is "The Human Condition." Focusing on the oppressed point of view would certainly fall under the umbrella. This unit will become a part of the umbrella theme and will use poetry to teach voice. I chose to focus on the voice of the victim during the Holocaust and the voice of the African American during the Jim Crow Era because my students would likely be interested in and have some background regarding these two crimes against humanity. I also want my students to face the realities of evil and mortality. This may seem like a dark subject but tenth grade is really a rite of passage for most of my students. They will be receiving their driver's licenses, and most likely taking on part-time jobs. Though these crimes and topics may seem unrelated to driving and working, the fact of the matter is these students need to learn that their perceptions of reality, humanity, and mortality will directly affect their lives. My hope is that from the unit they will develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and maybe, just maybe, think about the way they treat people and possibly think about the risks that they take. I am not foolish enough to think that this unit will change all of my students into caring, empathic people, but I feel I need to expose them to these ideals before they enter the "real world." By folding these ideas into the teaching of literature, I believe I will successfully expose my students to many novel facets of the human condition.

Curriculum Design and Purpose

Curriculum Design

The instructional design of the unit is based on the Understanding by Design theory of Wiggins and McTighe (1998). The unit uses the backward design model and the six facets of understanding. The backward design model centers on the idea that the design process should begin with the end in mind. First, one needs to identify what the students should take away from this unit. Wiggins and McTighe's framework isolates three main stages:

  • Stage 1: Identify desired outcomes and results
  • Stage 2: Determine what constitutes acceptable evidence of learning (assessment)
  • Stage 3: Plan Instructional strategies and learning experiences that bring students to acceptable levels of competency.

For teachers who are not familiar with this model, stage one is really defining goals and objectives. However, in this model, stage one not only focuses on course objectives but on life long learning objectives that should endure over time. These life long learning objectives are referred to as the "enduring understandings." Stage two focuses the unit by determining what forms of assessment are acceptable evidence of competency with regard to the outcomes and results. Basically, what forms of assessment will demonstrate that the student acquired knowledge, understanding, and skill? These forms of assessment can vary from performance tasks to quizzes and tests to observations and dialogue. Stage three determines what sequence of teaching and learning will equip the student to successfully demonstrate the necessary level of competency. In this stage, the teacher decides what lessons to create and what instructional strategies to use. Wiggins and McTighe suggest framing these activities around the "Six Facets of Understanding." The six facets are:

  • Explain
  • Interpret
  • Apply
  • Have Perspective
  • Empathize
  • Have Self-Knowledge.

This unit is designed according to this model. I will refer to the aforementioned stages and facets of understanding in the classroom activities section of the unit. However, for further explanation of this theory, visit the Understanding by Design Website at You can also read the first two chapters of Understanding by Design by visiting the following website:


Using the backward design approach, I will explain the purpose of the unit. With respect to the "Enduring Understandings," I try to think of it in terms of how my students will think back on this unit many years from now and what the most important aspects of it that I want them to remember are. If one thinks of three concentric circles, these understandings would be representative of the inner circle or core.

  • Enduring Understandings
  • Students will uncover that poetry is a vessel for voice
  • Students will write free verse poems
  • Students will recognize that the degradation, dehumanization and murders of African Americans during the Jim Crow Era and Jews during the Holocaust were two examples of Crimes Against Humanity.
  • Students will uncover that their voices are a part of humanity.
  • Students will uncover that how they treat people directly affects the human condition.

You can see that the enduring understandings for this particular unit do not deal with dates, statistics, and the recall of specific literary terms. Although these things are important, they are not the most important aspect of what I want my students to take from this unit. The Enduring Understandings listed above are the ideas that I want to imbed in the soul of each student. The use of the word "uncover" is a reminder of the real meaning of the overworked word "discover." The idea is that the students will uncover an enduring understanding through the way the teacher structures the learning activities and through the materials that are presented. In this particular unit, the poetry that is used and the strategies that are connected to the "six facets of understanding" will allow the students to uncover the deeper meaning of the unit.

Once the Enduring Understandings are established, the next level in the design is "What is important to know?" In terms of three inlaid circles, this knowledge would fall into the middle circle. These expand out of the core circle, the enduring understandings. These will be the objectives that I will need to create appropriate means of assessment. The following is a list of what I want my students to be able to do and know:

  • Students will be able to identify and implement varies forms of figurative language, including: hyperbole, metaphor, oxymoron, personification, simile, and allusion.
  • Students will be able to identify tone by selecting words that represent denotation and connotation.
  • Students will be able to identify symbols of oppression and hope.
  • Students will be able to identify the voice of the victim versus the voice of the oppressor, by analyzing selected words and symbols.
  • Students will identify sensory images.
  • Students will create poems of their own that are vessels for an oppressed voice, based on the poems that were analyzed.
  • Students will create ecphrastic poems based on artwork and/or photographs related to each of the crimes.
  • Students will compare and contrast the use of theme, symbol and figure concerning the two crimes
  • Students will recognize that artwork and photographs are visual representations of voice and can relate to poetry
  • Students will analyze notional ecphrastic poems

I will assess this knowledge through criteria referenced assessments (quizzes, tests, prompts) and informal forms of assessment (observations, dialogues, presentations).

The next level in the design is, what do I want my students to be familiar with as a result of this unit. In terms of the circle metaphor, this is the outer layer. This information will come from essays and movies. I want my students to be familiar with the following:

  • A timeline of dates
  • Statistics about each crime
  • Biographies of authors who are featured in the unit
  • The geography associated with each of these atrocities
  • The role government played in each crime
  • Definitions of words particularly associated with each era.

As you can see, when using the backward design model it is possible to include other crimes against humanity if a teacher wishes to do so, because the enduring understandings could stay the same. As I narrate the classroom activities, I will make reference to these levels and facets of understanding. Hopefully the ideas will solidify once they are used in context.


I will employ the following strategies throughout this unit: KWL, Think-Pair-Share,

Timeline, Free Write, Before-During-After, Think Aloud Reading Strategies, Two and Three-Column Notes (Reader/Writer Response), and Teacher Modeling.

I will explain how I will use specific strategies throughout the sample lesson plans.

Unit Correlation to State Standards

Like most teachers, I too am mandated to organize all of my activities in this and any other curriculum unit around state standards. This unit will correlate to the following state standards in Delaware, but I sure they can easily be adapted to other states' standards.

  • Standard One- Grade Level 9-10
  • Students will use written and oral English appropriate for various purposes and audiences
  • Standard Two- Grade Level 9-10
  • Students will construct, examine, and extend the meanings of literary, informative, and technical texts through listening, reading and viewing.
  • Standard Three- Grade Level 9-10
  • Students will access, organize, and evaluate information gained by listening, reading, and viewing.
  • Standard Four- Grade Level 9-10
  • Students will use literary knowledge accessed through print and visual media to connect self to society and culture.

Although this unit may not cover the entire scope of each standard, it will align to critical parts of each standard. What is not covered in this unit will be included in the suggested follow-up activities that are located at the end.

Materials List

The following list of materials will be necessary to complete this unit:

  • Blackboard, chartpaper, or overhead transparency to write on
  • Computer with internet access
  • Computer or boombox that can play a CD
  • Copies of the poems, videos, and images specified in the unit
  • TV with VCR or DVD

Classroom Activities

To introduce the unit: I will put the term Crimes Against Humanity on the board and ask the students each to write down how they would define this term. I will then have the students use the think-pair-share structure to share their definition with a partner and then with a group. Once each individual has shared in the group, I will ask each group to record a definition on chart paper in the front of the room. I will leave these definitions posted as we study the unit. Once we have reviewed the definitions from each group, I will ask the students: Do you know about any specific crimes against humanity? I will have the students make a list of their responses on the board. Once this activity is complete I will have the students read a piece entitled, "Crimes Against Humanity" written by M.Cherif Bassiouni who is a professor of law and Director of the International Criminal Justice and Weapons Center at DePaul University in Chicago. This piece can be found at the following URL:

After discussing this informative essay, I will have the students write a summary. I will ask them to keep the article and the summary as reference pieces. I will then tell the students that this unit will focus on two distinct Crimes Against Humanity that were happening simultaneously:

  • The segregation, dehumanization and murder of African Americans during the Jim Crow Era
  • The dehumanization and genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Once I have introduced these two topics, I will have the students create a KWL for each topic. A KWL is a three-column chart with the following headings: What do I know about this topic, what do I want to know about this topic, and what have I learned about this topic? I will have them complete the first two columns and then share their response with a small group. For each topic, I will have each group create a chart that reflects the knowledge and the questions of each team. As we learn, a student recorder will fill in answers to questions in the L columns of the charts.

Next, I will have the students create a glossary of terms in the reference section of their notebooks. The first terms I will have them define are: genocide, degradation, and dehumanization. As we continue through the unit the students will add specific terminology to the list.

At the end of the week I will show two films. The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (2002), which can be obtained through the PBS website and Holocaust- In Memory of Millions (2002), which can be obtained through Discovery Home Video or The purpose of showing the films is to expose the students to the big picture and the historical content that is worth knowing. I will have the students take notes as they watch and then write reactions to each of the films. I will then provide the students with a timeline of dates and significant events for each of the crimes. It will be one timeline that frames both crimes. This way the students can see that aspects of these crimes were occurring simultaneously.

The next phase of the unit will be devoted to the topic: Poetry as a Vessel for Voice and the Connection between Pictures and Poetry. This part of the unit will require the students to write, analyze and interpret free verse poetry. The classroom activities that focus on the topic of poetry will fall into three categories: hearing the voice, becoming the voice, and whose voices are left? "Hearing the voice," will require students to analyze the voice that is presented in a poem. They will explain the effectiveness of poetic devices, tone, and symbol. The next category, "becoming the voice," will require students to write free verse poems from the victim's point of view. These poems will be based on artwork and photographs from each era. The next category, "whose voices are left?" will help the students gain perspective about voice by analyzing poems written by published poets who have written free verse poems from a victim's point of view.

I will first ask the students to respond to the following questions:

  • Why do people write poetry?
  • Why is poetry a vessel for voice?
  • Is the poet always the voice that is presented in a poem?
  • What types of language do poems typically include?
  • What is an ecphrastic poem?
  • What is a notional ecphrastic poem?
  • What is free verse poetry?

Through a series of discussions, I will have the students orally share their responses to these questions, and we will chart the responses as well. Once the students have responded, I will give them the correct definitions of ecphrastic poetry and notional ecphrastic poetry and have them include these terms and definitions in their glossary. At this point I will discuss what free verse means. Since this unit focuses on free verse poetry, I want my students to have a clear understanding of this poetic form. When most people think of free verse they think of poetry that has no rhyme, meter or rhythm. I will tell my students that free verse lacks strict meter but still needs to incorporate some type of rhythm. Using poetic devices and concrete language is what can make a free verse poem a poem rather than prose chopped up into lines. By analyzing selected free verse poems for poetic devices and concrete language, students can then imitate this type of poetry. I will also have the students include in their glossary the definitions of the following terms: Metaphor, Simile, Allusion, Personification, Symbol, Hyperbole, Sensory Imagery, Theme, Tone, and Oxymoron.

Lesson Plan I

I will ask the students to make a connection between art and poetry. I will ask them to respond to the following questions:

  • How can there be a connection between a picture or photograph and a poem?
  • What do these two art forms have to do with each other?

Once we have discussed possible connections, I will show them a picture and ask them to respond to it by writing a free verse poem. This part of the unit will focus on the category: becoming the voice. I am planning on using a drawing by Jan Komski, a Holocaust survivor and artist. I will show them a painting entitled "Ecce Homo," which means, "Behold the Man." The painting depicts a man who is being released from a prison hospital and is considered fit to work, yet he is so famished that the observer can see the man's skeleton poking through his skin.

I will have some of the students share their poems and then I will ask them to take on the persona of the man in the painting and write a poem that gives him a voice. I might phrase it like this: "If the man in the painting could speak, what would he say?"

Once the students have completed their poems, I will allow them to share. I will then ask them to write a response to the following question and prompts:

  • What words or phrases did I use in my poem to convey to the reader that the speaker of the poem is the man in Komski's painting?
  • Explain how these words or phrases convey voice.
  • If applicable, identify the poetic device you used to convey voice.

I will ask the students to write their response using a three-column reader/writer response format. On the left side of the sheet the student would copy the words or phrases. Then in the middle the student would respond to the aforementioned prompt. Finally, in the right hand column I would ask the students to identify the words or phrases they copied in relation to poetic devices. It might look like this:

(table available in print form)

Using the three column note format helps the students organize their thoughts as well as write a self-assessment of their use of language. The above example shows that format and the italized writing shows what a model response would look like. I would actually model this for my students to give them a starting point. If the students cannot fill in the third column, I would then ask the question:

- How could you turn the words and/ or phrase into a figure of language?

Once we have discussed our answers, I would repeat this lesson using a photograph of a lynching from the Jim Crow Era, and ask the students to write a poem from the victim's point of view. I would have the student follow the above procedure.

As the unit continues, I would have the student write several free verse poems based on several different images, using some scenes from the Holocaust and some from the Jim Crow Era. There are many images available on the Internet. This activity allows the students to take on the persona of the oppressed person that is seen in the photograph or picture. If the students are allowed to write and analyze their own poems first, they will have gained knowledge and tools that will allow them to analyze poems written from survivors of these two eras. The following is a list of URL's where useable images may be found:

  • Holocaust Images
  • Images from the Jim Crow Era

Next, I will focus on analyzing poetry written by victims from both eras as well as having students write ecphrastic poetry. This part of the unit will focus on hearing the voice of the victim. I want the students to uncover that people use poetry as a vessel for voice. This part of the unit will focus on free verse poems written by victims of the Holocaust and victims of segregation during the Jim Crow Era.

Lesson Plan II

I will begin by introducing a poem entitled "Never Shall I Forget" by Elie Wiesel. Elie Wiesel is a Jewish poet, essayist, and advocate who was deported with his family to Auschwitz, where they perished and he survived. After liberation he settled in Paris and eventually moved to the US. He is the Chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986. I will have the students read the poem and answer the following question: Who is the speaker of these lines? Once the students have brainstormed and shared their answers, I will ask them to read the entire poem and answer questions that align with the six facets of understanding. I will ask the students to answer the following questions and respond to the following prompts:

  • What does Wiesel mean when he writes, "that night…which has turned my life into one long night?"
  • What types of figurative language does Wiesel use?
  • Explain why Wiesel's use of figurative language helps the reader create an image.
  • What is the tone of this poem? Chose specific words to support your answer.
  • What feelings does this poem evoke in the reader?
  • Could this poem be the voice of the victim in Jan Komski's painting "Ecco Homo?"

To introduce a poet and victim of segregation from the Jim Crow Era, I will focus on the poem, "Lunch in a Jim Crow Car" by Langston Hughes. This poem is short, only four lines. However, Hughes uses many forms of figurative language to illustrate an oppressed voice. I will ask my students the respond to the following questions and prompts:

  • Interpret the line, "Get out the lunch-box of your dreams."
  • What types of figurative language does Hughes use in this poem?
  • Analyze the effectiveness of a four line poem. Do you hear the voice of the oppressed person in only four lines? How?
  • Chose an image from the Jim Crow Era that depicts a crime. Write an ecphrastic poem from the victim's point of view. Imitate Hughes's style and structure in "Lunch in a Jim Crow Car."
  • Imagine you are riding in the Jim Crow car, and write two more stanzas to add to Hughes's poem.
  • Find an image that could be the scene that is illustrated in this poem.

Once the students have analyzed the poems and shared their responses, I will use this same type of questioning with many other poems written by victims and survivors of each era. I will use the following resources for these poems:

  • A Classic Collection of Poems by a Master of American Verse: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
  • The Book of American Negro Poetry
  • Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945
  • Holocaust Poetry

The final focus of the unit will be organized around the category: Whose Voices Are Left? In this section I will have students analyze poems written by people who have taken on the person of the oppressed. This part of the unit will have the students critically analyze poems for voice, make connections with their own poems, and gain self-knowledge about the human condition.

Lesson Plan III

I will first have the students read the poem "Strange Fruit" by Lewis Allen. This poem, which was adapted to a song and performed by Billie Holiday, describes the lynching of African Americans during the Jim Crow Era. Before giving the students a biography of the poet, I will ask them to respond to the following questions and prompts.

  • Interpret and explain the use of metaphor. What is the fruit and what is strange about it?
  • What language is contradictory in the poem? What is oxymoronic?
  • What language demonstrates the shift in tone?
  • Based on the voice of the speaker, write a biography of the speaker's life.

Once the students have shared their responses I will then share with them biographical information about Lewis Allen. Lewis Allen was a pseudonym for Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from New York. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching he had seen, Allen wrote the poem and later set it to music. It was performed at a teachers' union meeting and then caught the attention of a nightclub manager who introduced the singer Billie Holiday to Allen. Billie Holiday began performing the song and is often thought to have written it.

Once the students know that a white man wrote the poem, I will ask them to answer the following questions:

  • Does the race of the poet affect the voice that is heard in this poem? Why or why not?
  • How is this poem a vessel for voice? In the past and in the present?

I will have the students analyze several other poems that are spoken by a persona other than the poets speaking in their own voice. This will help the students' transition into the last part of the unit. One collection of poetry I will require the students to read and analyze is MACNOLIA by A Van Jordan. Van Jordan, an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, tells the story of MacNolia Cox. MacNolia's life is told through a serious of poems, which are a haunting description of racism and ignorance. In 1936, MacNolia Cox won the Akron District Spelling Bee and was the first African American to make it to the final round of the national competition. The Southern judges gave MacNolia a word that was not on the official list. Ironically the word was nemesis. This tragic defeat prompted MacNolia to drop out of school and work as a maid for the rest of her life. This collection is an excellent instance of persona poetry, and enables the reader to hear the voice of MacNolia throughout. I will require the students to use this collection as a model for their final poetry project.

The last part of the unit will require the students to create a poetry portfolio incorporating poems that fit into the aforementioned three categories. Students will be required to find images and write ecphrastic poems based on those images; they will have to choose six poems by victims; and analyze the poems based on the objectives stated in the Curriculum and Design portion of the unit. Finally, they will be required to include poems that are vessels for the victim's voice that are written by someone other than the victim. They will use the MACNOLIA collection as a model for telling a person's life story through poetry. I will require the students to choose a person from the Jim Crow Era or the Holocaust. The students will share their portfolios with the class at the end.

Requirements for Final Poetry Portfolio:

  • Hearing the Voice
  • Choose three poems from victims from each era. Choose one poem from each era to analyze based on the use of figure, theme, tone, and symbol.
  • Becoming the Voice
  • Choose two images that represent tragedy during each of these eras. Write an ecphrastic poem for each image.
  • Whose Voices Are Left?
  • After researching people who became the voice of each era, compile a collection of poems that tell your chosen person's life story.

The students will use the poems that were analyzed and written earlier in the unit as models for their poetry portfolio. However, the portfolio is an occasion for assessment and will require the students to research and find answers on their own. I will allow students to write various forms of poetry if they choose, or they may only write and analyze free verse poems. This portfolio will give them a chance to experiment with other forms of poetry.

Words to be included in Student Glossary:

  • Alliteration
  • Allusion
  • Hyperbole
  • Ecphrastic poetry
  • Free Verse
  • Metaphor
  • Oxymoron
  • Persona
  • Persona poetry
  • Personification
  • Rhythm
  • Sensory Imagery
  • Simile
  • Theme
  • Tone

Students will be required to write down the definitions of these words after class discussions.

Annotated Bibliographies

Bibliography for Teachers

Harper, M. S., & Walton, A. eds. (1994). Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of

Poetry by African Americans Since 1945. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and

Company. This is an excellent source for poems written by African Americans who lived during the Jim Crow Era. This source can be used in the Hearing the Voice Section.

Hughes, L. (1959). A Classic Collection of Poems by a Master of American Verse:

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

This collection highlights poems from Langston Hughes, a master of American poetry.

Johnson, J. W., ed. (1959). The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York, NY:

Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. This collection is a nice complement to Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep. It includes poems written by African Americans.

Koch, K. (1998) Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

New York, NY: Touchstone. Koch considers poetry to be a separate language. He gives insight on how to teach poetry and how to write poetry.

Koch, K. (1990). Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to

Children. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House Inc. This is an excellent instructional tool. Koch gives fun and realistic ways to teach students how to write poems.

Schiff, Hilda. ed. (1995) Holocaust Poetry. New York, NY: St. Martin's Griffin. This is

an outstanding collection of poetry from survivors and other notable poets. It is

broken into several sections, which helps the reader find poems that will relate to

certain themes.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998) Understanding By Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

    This book explains the understanding by design theory and also gives valuable

strategies to help the reader design lessons using the backward design model.

Bibliography for Students

Fletcher, R. (2002). Poetry Matter: Writing a Poem from the Inside Out. New York, NY:

Harper Trophy. This book can help students find ways to start their own poems. There are many fun-filled activities to get students started.

Packard, W. (1989) The Poet's Dictionary: A Handbook of Prosody and Poetic Devices.

New York, NY: Harper & Row. This is a dictionary of poetic terms with examples and explanations.

Van Jordan, A. (2004) MACNOLIA. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. This

collection is a great example of persona poetry and can be used with the

Becoming the Voice section of the unit. It tells the story of MacNolia Cox and her struggle with discrimination in America as a young black girl.

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