Engage your students in an exploration of self-discovery through poetry! In this post, I share my favorite poems that explore themes of identity, self-acceptance, and self-discovery that my students enjoy and relate to most. Now, you can share them with your students, too!
What two things do middle-grade students struggle with most, you ask? Poetry and navigating the world of adolescence, including exploring their identity, finding their voice, and embracing themselves for who they are. (Tell me I’m wrong.)
By teaching poems that explore the theme of identity, we can guide students through an exploration of poetry and themselves. Therefore, not only will you have the opportunity to teach the power of poetic devices, but you will also create a safe space for students to explore their feelings, perspectives, and self-expression.
In this post, I’ll dive into my advice (and favorite titles) for using poetry as a tool to help students understand the wonderful world of this literary genre while also encouraging them to engage in personal reflection and creative expression of identity.
Identity plays a pivotal role in our lives and, luckily, is a popular theme in literature. Now, while identity is a complex and ever-evolving concept for everyone, it’s even more so for middle school students. For them, the journey of self-discovery and understanding their place in the world is in full swing, and it can be awkward and overwhelming for them at times.
Poetry offers a unique and effective way to explore identity with middle school students that also helps to ease them into an often “feared” (or at least dreaded) literary genre. Here are a few of my favorite reasons to combine poetry and identity in middle school ELA:
- Emotional Impact: Poems can inspire students to connect with the themes of identity on a personal and emotional level, making the lessons more impactful.
- Imagery and Symbolism: Poetry often uses vivid imagery and symbolism to convey complex and abstract ideas, like identity.
- Diverse Perspectives: Use poetry to expose students to a variety of voices and perspectives by choosing works written by authors from various backgrounds and cultures.
- Social-Emotional Learning: Poetry encourages reflection and discussion, fostering emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills critical for social-emotional development.
- Open to Interpretation: Poetry is open to interpretation which gives students the freedom to approach it from multiple angles, encouraging critical thinking.
- Creative Expression: By reading and writing poems, students can express their thoughts and feelings about their own identities, providing an outlet for self-expression.
6 Powerful Poems Exploring the Theme of Identity
This poignant poem is told from the perspective of a mother talking to her son about her life (in metaphor, of course #poetry). While the poem paints a clear picture of the speaker’s grit, resilience, and perseverance, it also encourages her son and readers alike to recognize the strength in their own identities and to draw inspiration from the struggles and determination of those who came before them. Therefore, it speaks to the idea that one’s identity is shaped not only by personal experiences but by the guidance, experiences, and sacrifices of those before us.
“Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco is a short yet thought-provoking poem that addresses the theme of identity and self-acceptance. The speaker compares one’s identity to flowers and weeds, asserting that they’d rather stay true to their authentic self (aka a “tall, ugly weed) than succumb to societal norms and pressures. Polanco uses beautiful figurative language to remind readers that individuality and authenticity are integral to one’s sense of self, encouraging readers to celebrate the distinctive traits that make them who they are. Honestly, what student doesn’t need that reminder?
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou is an empowering poem about resilience and self-confidence in the face of adversity. The speaker shares her story of rising above discrimination, prejudice, and personal challenges. Despite living in a society trying to hold her down, the speaker takes pride in her identity and forges forward with unwavering determination. Therefore, Angelou’s poem beautifully promotes the idea that one’s identity is not determined by external forces but is a matter of personal pride, self-confidence, and self-empowerment.
Grimes’ poem explores the “mask” the speaker and their peers have to wear to get by in society. Specifically, the poem emphasizes the struggles of adolescents whose “chocolate” skin color “works to camouflage [their] character and promise.” In doing so, the speaker calls attention to the judgments people make on others and the identities we assume upon others based on their race. In a broader context, the speaker is addressing the idea of “masking” parts of one’s identity to protect it from the judgments of others. Regardless of race, this concept is #relatable.
Fun fact: The last word of each line of this poem is taken from the first stanza of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” another poem about concealing one’s authentic identity, making them a great poetry pair to teach! Then, challenge students to consider the masks they wear in various contexts.
Students seeking independence (aka all of them) will appreciate Gibran’s insights about the parent-child relationship woven throughout this poem. The poem emphasizes that children should be seen not as possessions of their parents but as individuals with their own identities, dreams, and destinies. Furthermore, the speaker asserts that each child’s identity is a product of their own choices and experiences while the parents should respect and nurture this individuality, promoting self-discovery.
“Thumbprint” by Eve Merriam is a concise yet powerful poem that explores the uniqueness of individual identity. The poem emphasizes the idea that two people are exactly alike, each one of us with a personal signature within our very fingerprints. Merriam positions even the most subtle aspects of our unique being, like a thumbprint, to celebrate our one-of-a-kind nature. Therefore, the poem encourages students to consider what makes them unique, empowering them to embrace their individuality and recognize the beauty in their differences
Continue the conversation about identity and the exploration of self with even more powerful poems that are sure to resonate with your students.
7. “Remember” by Joy Harjo
8. “Two Names, Two Worlds” by Jonathan Rodríguez
9. “In the Depths of Solitude” by Tupac Shakur (Yes, as in the rapper.)
10. “The Journey” by Mary Oliver
11. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
12. “The Courage That My Mother Had” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
These poems are just a starting point for your journey into this rich and thought-provoking topic.
No matter which of the poems above you bring into your classroom, remember this: the key to fostering an engaging learning experience around poetry and identity is to create an open and safe environment. Encourage your students to share their thoughts and experiences without fear of judgment. Give them space and freedom to express their thoughts and explore their identities through their own writing exercises and poems.
Creating a sense of acceptance and belonging will allow you to use these poems as a springboard to inspire deep reflections, foster self-acceptance, and encourage your students to celebrate their unique identities.
Teaching identity and poetry is about more than encouraging students to think about who they are. It’s also about building a sense of awareness and empathy for others. It is as much about self-acceptance and personal growth as it is about social awareness and cultural understanding.
Literature in general offers a window into the lives and experiences of others. By discussing identity in the context of poetry analysis, students can take a creative journey toward developing empathy and a deeper appreciation for diverse perspectives.
Therefore, as you begin to plan your next poetry unit, strive to strike a balance between pieces that serve as windows and ones that serve as doors for your students. As a result, you will craft a learning experience that supports understanding and acceptance of oneself and others—and, of course, poetry. (Win-win-win!)
Ready to tackle poetry? Save time with my complete poetry unit for middle schoolers.