In the Classroom: Historical Figure/Literary Character Persona Poems
Goals and Objectives: For students to examine historical figures or literary characters in relationship to self through poem creation. Exercise can be used on its own as a stand alone creative writing exercise or can easily support a larger history or English curriculum.
Warm Up: Finding A Subject
Have students pick a historical figure or literary character they are drawn to. If used as part of a class curriculum, you may want to provide a list of choices based on current units (for example, Civil War) or a book being read in class (for example, Bodega Dreams.)
1. Generating Character Sketch
Have students list at least ten characteristics of the figure/character. For example, their perceived mannerisms, habits, actions and qualities. These should be based on both things they know (facts) and imagine (fiction.)
For example, Precious from Push by Sapphire
– She got pregnant by her Dad
– She has a mental disability
– She is innocent and naive, but her life circumstances are not
– She cares for people and trusts them when maybe she shouldn’t
Task students with free responding to this prompt-
Where do you see yourself in relationship to this character/figure? What similarities do you share? What differences? Do you have advice for them? How do you think their story should end?
3. Translating to Metaphor
Prompt students to write a list of things the character/figure might say or do, based on their previous list, using the refrain “perhaps.” Urge students to translate these statements into metaphors.
She got pregnant by her Dad
Perhaps the moon grew in my belly, birthed from the evil black night
Example Work: Share and discuss Cleopatra VII by Camonghne Felix from the Well&Often Reader: Issue Two
Writing Prompt: Using your pre-writing exercises as material and inspiration, write a poem in the voice of your character/figure. What story do they want to tell the world?What do they need to “set straight”?
Group Voices & Extended Poem:
Borrowing Camonghne’s “lesson one” format, create a larger creative writing piece in chapters: lesson one, lesson two, lesson three, etc. to include many memories. If students come from the same community, let it become a group poem, with a lesson contributed from each group
Post-Critique: Peer Edits
In pairs, students should critique a partner’s work. Where can the metaphor and imagery be pushed? Is the piece clear? Is there a reason this story is being told? What feeling does it give the reader. Does it push the reader’s imagination?
Giving students a rubric or a check list grading sheet based on their identified “what makes a good poem” elements will help guide the process.
Using the advice given by peers, students retool and revisit their piece, adding imagery, metaphor and simile in areas identified and clarifying problematic/unclear language. It is helpful to scaffold this process into “draft one” and “draft two,” so students can see their own growth.
Students share out in front of the class. It is always a positive experience to have students build in an element of positive feedback. Some ways to guide this process:
– Create a performance environment: Identify a student host to “lead” the “open mic.” Each student is introduced with a brief biography. Hand claps or finger snaps set the stage. Assign a student to “DJ,” intro-ing each poet coming to the “stage,” or front of classroom, with appropriate music.
– Sharing aloud: After each poem shared, ask for a few students to verbally share out parts of the poem they enjoyed.
– Index Cards: Have a list of guiding questions on the board. Ask students to give specific, positive feedback to each piece shared aloud that can be collected. At the end of class, distribute the index cards to each poet.
– Assigning “positive feedback” partners. Each student is assigned a fellow classmate to “grade” or “positively assess” a peer on their work using a rubric or pre-planned feedback sheet.
Beyond the Classroom:
Create an experience for the student work to live beyond the four walls of the classroom. Consider compiling a photocopied “chapbook” of the poems, asking an artistic student to illustrate the cover, or a blog where the poems can live and be shared with parents, school administrators and peers. Another option may be a lunch time “poetry open mic” where the students act as the “feature,” having a few brave class members share out their class pieces to a wider audience.
Related Article: Cleopatra VII
Written and Developed by Caits Meissner for Well&Often