Finding the Heart in History

For Teachers

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About this Activity

Science is for those who learn; poetry, for those who know. - Joseph Roux

In this activity, students analyze and interpret historical, primary source content, then synthesize the information, making personal connections with history as they retell it from their own perspective. The activity provides an opportunity for students to creatively share their historical understanding with an authentic audience.

While writing original poetry can be daunting to students, this activity uses a "found poetry" strategy. Using rich primary source texts, students select words that allow them to retell the historical content in poetic form. Students use primary source images first for analysis, then as graphical support for their poems.

Student poems and images can be collected and published as a classroom "chapter book" organized by prominent historic themes and events from the National History Eras. The classroom publication also could focus on broad historical themes. Chapter titles for your publication might include:

Settlement, Beginnings to 1763
The American Revolution, 1763-1783
The New Nation, 1783-1815
National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860
Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877
Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900
Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929
Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Postwar United States, 1945-1968
War and Peace
Explorers and Exploration
Protest and Reform
Innovation, Imagination, and Invention
We the People


Directions for the Teacher

Reading a Source Document:

Students who have not previously worked with primary resources need to learn to analyze and interpret primary source documents. Using Primary Sources has ideas for getting started teaching with primary sources. When students understand how to use primary source documents, provide them with tools to help structure their thinking and organize their ideas as they work with Library documents.

Creating Found Poetry:

To create a found poem, students select words, phrases, lines, and sentences from one or more written documents and combine them into a poem. Raw material for found poems can be selected from newspaper articles, speeches, diaries, advertisements, letters, food menus, brochures, short stories, shopping lists, and even other poems.

A set of Library text resources for each suggested chapter is provided in the Galleries.

There is no single strategy for creating a found poem. The words and phrases selected depend upon the student's initial purpose. Here are some possible strategies:

When students have selected their words and phrases, they combine, arrange and rearrange them, considering not only the content and meaning of the emerging poem but also its rhythm and line breaks. Because writing found poetry is a personal process, students will approach their work in various ways. Some students will use pencil and paper. Others will print the source document, cut out the words and physically arrange them on a desktop or blank sheet of paper. Still others will work at the computer, copying and pasting from the source document into a word-processing application. Many Library of Congress text source documents are actually presented online as images. When possible, we have provided a text transcript that can be copied.

For more examples of student-created found poetry, see Enhancing a Poetry Unit with American Memory.

Use of Images

Evocative images of an era, theme or topic contribute to historical understanding and can spark writing ideas. Careful observation and analysis of an image will provide historic details, supportive information, and may even offer rich language for the found poem. Have your students use the provided tools for document analysis.

Classroom access to the Internet will influence how students use the online images. If students have ready access, some will be comfortable analyzing their selected images on a computer screen. No matter the availability of Internet access, some students will prefer to print their selected images for use, offline.

The images students select to accompany their poem offer the audience an enhanced reading experience. Thoughtful pairing of image and poem is critical.

For collections of images for student use, see Galleries.

Description of Process:

This activity requires use of the Library's primary source content. Additionally, you, the teacher, may ask students to compose and submit a short written description of their process that shows how the provided primary resources contributed to their poem. Students could describe what Library items they selected, why they chose these particular resources, what message they wished to convey in their poem, and their process in writing the found poem. You may certainly add additional criteria to this process description.

Publishing Student Work:

You can use the online activity to print out student poems and accompanying images. Students can type their final poem in a word-processing format, copy/paste their work into the online form, select the accompanying image and print their pages from the Web site. The collective student pages can become a treasured classroom book, which can be shared with classmates, parents and other students.

To have great poets, there must be great audiences. - Walt Whitman


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