Analyzing Poetry with John Legend & Common

My fifth graders did not do so hot on the poetry section of their middle of year benchmark.  I can rage about standardized tests all I want, but at the end of the day, our sweet kiddos have to pass.  So I was faced with the choice between doing STAAR practice, or finding a creative way to study poetry in a way that is not only applicable to the test, but applicable to life and applicable to the social justice ideas we talk about each and every day in class.  I bet you can guess which one I chose.

We spent the whole week studying John Legend and rapper Common’s song “Glory.”  You might be familiar, this song swept up an array of awards after it’s premiere in Selma in 2015.  Here’s the video (you should watch it, or call up a fifth grader, because we all have it memorized by now.)

There are SO MANY things we can talk about here.  Every.   Single.  Line.  My favorite part of the song is the line, “that’s why Rosa sat on a bus, that’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” I love this line because it connects today to the past, something we are constantly doing in our class.  We identified the parallels as well as the contrasts, and new conversations were started.  It led us to a lesson on rhetoric, talking about the difference in the word choice between “Black Lives Matter,” and the edited, “All Lives Matter,” and why the makers of a movement who truly care about all people chose a hashtag that is specific to African Americans.  How I wish that adults could make the connections that our fifth graders can make!  It was so easy for them to explain, “well, they’re not saying that only black lives matter, just that black lives matter too, and they’re the ones who need help right now.”  These kids will change the world.

The kids’ inquiry led us to watch snippets of an interview between Stephen Colbert and Black Lives Matter founder and activist DeRay McKesson.  We watched this interview, and watched Stacey Dash’s short-but-not-so-sweet thirty seconds on Fox News, and talked about why we have Black History Month, discussing both sides of the argument.

We also talked about juxtaposition, and the heartbreakingly beautiful line, “saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle,” how the injustice of a thing like segregation happened in the land of the free and the brave.  The song is just chock-full of symbolism and figurative language and all of the things that make Ms. Green swoon.

One of the best things about this song is that at every level, we can learn something from it.  Ten year olds learned, and I learned, and I think it would be just as challenging of a lesson in a high school or college level classroom.  It’s just that good.


You can check out a copy of the lyrics and our analysis questions on TeachersPayTeachers.



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