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Lesson Plan Found Poetry with Primary Sources: The Great Depression

Students explore poetry using American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection of the Library of Congress, which covers personal stories collected by the Works Progress Administration. In particular, students write "found poetry" based on the stories found in this collection.

This unit is best undertaken after students have studied a good amount of published poetry and are familiar with at least several different elements common to most verse. These can be found in any grade-level student text or teacher manual, from junior high on up. Briefly, elements to look for include the following: alliteration, repetition, sensory language, metaphor and simile, imagery, rhythm, stanzas, and line breaks.


Students will be able to:

  • Ground and authenticate elements of a poetry unit through historical primary sources.
  • Appreciate and recognize the elements of poetry and then to create "found poetry" from the stories and language recorded in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 from diverse geographic regions.

Time Required

Two to five weeks

Lesson Preparation


Lesson Procedure

Broadly speaking, all poetry is "found" somewhere, in something which inspires a writer to want to develop his or her thoughts in verse. However, inspiration is sometimes lacking for both experienced poets and new ones, such as students who are required to write poetry for a class. "Found Poetry" can serve as an antidote to an experienced poet's block, but it can also get a new poet rolling with the use of someone else's language, images, cadences, and, of course, observations about life. It's quite possible to find the basis of poetry in certain newspaper articles and headlines, and even in drier nonfiction texts.

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 provides a wealth of material on which to found "Found Poetry". Because the Life Histories are in the most basic sense the personal property of the people chronicled in them, poets and teachers of student poets would be well advised to approach them with the respect due any human being, and to use them for the good purposes of understanding history and creating art.

This caution is necessary because many of the Life Histories will seem outrageous to students because they depict colorful, often difficult lives and may be told in the most vernacular terms. Bad grammar, too, and dialects have their place in poetry; teachers may need to work on this with their students.

Drawing on American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, students compose "found poetry" grounded in the WPA narratives.  For an example, see Found Poetry Based on Elsie Wall. Students will receive direction in free text and geographical searching and choose stories to turn into poems.  They will draw on the language (dialect, jargon, descriptive detail, etc.), arrange and rearrange it, add language of their own, and ultimately create new poems which honor the histories, but are indeed the students' own work.

1. The first step for the Found Poetry unit is to identify rich texts from the Life Histories to draw on. A text is "rich" if its story or situation is reasonably interesting to a student and is told in a colorful, spirited, or involved way by the subject or the writer.

  • One such story is "Cowboy Life", found by searching terms "ranch and steers", which could be the basis for some vivid short narrative poems.
  • The story of Anna Potter Davis, found in a search for watermelon and summer, could inspire some descriptive poetry about food and family life.
  • Another history, "The Newton Family", found by searching dogs and chickens, could be used for either descriptive or narrative poems.
  • Based on the "Blizzard of 1888", found with the key words snow and horses, students in our classroom wrote several poems. See Found Poetry Examples with Blizzard of 1888 for two of the student poems.

2. The teacher locates one text from American Life Histories and composes a poem as an example. After distributing the poem to the class, the teacher explains found poetry and describes how he or she wrote the poem.

3. The teacher locates a second narrative for the class to work on as a whole. After a class discussion of the passage's images and themes, and after breaking out the evocative language, the teacher models a short poem of 4-6 lines.

4. Next, the students, alone or in pairs, compose poems centered on one aspect of the narrative.

  • Students can search the American Life Histories collection and identify narratives that interest them. The teacher can set the parameters: geographical choices, childhood experiences, occupations (miners, ranchers, factory workers, etc.), pioneer stories, etc. Alternatively, the teacher can select and print life histories to distribute to students.
  • Once students have a narrative to work with, they can read and comment briefly on the life history to show comprehension of the basic points of the story.

    Note - At this point, some students will be quite comfortable with composing "original," yet "found" poetry, while others will need help to get started. The teacher may suggest that the student focus on one aspect of the narrative or on several poetic elements. Setting basic requirements will provide a basis for grading, if necessary.

5. Presentation of results. When the students and the teacher are satisfied with the poetry, it can be published in a class booklet or presented in an oral reading. A student presenter could, for instance, present himself as the person in the narrative from the American Life Histories collection and tell his or her story in verse.

Example 1

Found Poetry Examples based on the "Blizzard of 1888"

For a moment
The room became as black as night
For an instant
There came a ray of light
We all walked out
Into the storm
Be brave
Feel scared
Don't give up
North wind
Blew us half a mile south
We let our friends go
And continued
To the storm
All while trying to find
Their way

Long hanging icicles dripped,
Melted snow,
White flakes,
Pretty starry flakes,
as light as feathers.
Falling fast,
Deep white snow,
Snow covers people like snowmen.

Example 2

Found Poetry based on Elsie Wall - from American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Rocks in her chair between supper and dinner,
thirty-two but looks forty-five.
Never learned how to chop in the garden,
never learned right how to pay at the store.

Rocks in her chair between supper and dinner,
children in rags lined up on the porch:
all she can count, all she can figure.
How can she clothe them to send them to school?

Daughters with bright eyes of Jean Harlow,
hang Jesus and movie stars framed on the walls.
Six dollars a week for six mouths in the family:
How will they work, get out of this town?

Jim works in the cotton mill, tends crops in the garden.
Elsie can cook if there's food in the house.
Pots catch the flow from the rainy roof leaks.
Rocks on her porch in rain or in fine.

Evaluation and Extension

The American Life Histories component of the poetry unit requires students to compose poetry according to specified guidelines, incorporating selected poetic elements. Writing can be published in book form and on-line, and presented orally at a reading.


Alison Westfall and Laura Mitchell