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Living Nations, Living Words: A Guide for Educators

Online Poetry Collection as a Starting Place

The "Living Nations, Living Words" online poetry collection contains audio recordings of 47 contemporary Native American poets reading and discussing an original poem, including Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, Natalie Diaz, Ray Young Bear, Craig Santos Perez, Sherwin Bitsui, Layli Long Soldier, and other featured voices. There are numerous points of entry to these materials and audio recordings. Below are some classroom ideas you might consider:

Examine a Poem Through a Thematic Lens

  • Students can consider, for example, “Old Humptulips” by Duane Niatum or "Postcolonial Love Poem" by Natalie Diaz.
  • Encourage them to read the poem through the lens of a particular theme or touchpoint (e.g., displacement or resistance).
  • They might also read the poem through the lens of a topic or concept in geography, science, the environment, language and culture, or history. Some sample prompts include:
    • Analyze the poem to identify and consider poetic techniques and devices, word choice, structure and format, themes, points of view, perspectives, or other aspects, depending on your lens.
    • Identify geographic clues that might suggest where the events of the poem take place.
    • Look for historical clues that might suggest when the events in the poem occurred. Read and listen to the poet’s commentary and write a short essay that compares your ideas with the poet’s reality.
    • Identify any bridges between historical and current events, perhaps with regard to the portrayal and treatment of Indigenous people.
    • Consider seeking out poems that were written by other Indigenous poets, on similar themes to those explored in “Living Nations, Living Words.”


Screenshot of an image showing an item page from the online poetry collection for Living Nations, Living Words

Select a Poem to Read, and Listen to the Poet’s Commentary

  • Each poem is accompanied by an audio recitation by the poet, as well as the poet’s commentary.
  • Ask students to select a poem to read aloud on their own. (Consider, for instance, starting with Heid E. Erdrich’s “Peacemaking.”)
  • Encourage students to write observations and reflections. Some prompts could include:
    • What sounds are included in the poem?
    • What emotion does this poem evoke?
    • What is your takeaway after reading this poem?
  • Next, invite students to simply listen to the poet recite the poem:
    • What do they hear differently when the poet reads?
    • Students can review their responses to the reading prompts and discuss in small groups.
  • After some reflection, students can listen to the poet's own commentary and notes, and then participate in a larger classroom discussion. Example prompt:
    • How does your understanding of the poem change after hearing insight and perspective from the author?
  • As an extension activity, encourage students to create a slide presentation, poster display, tableau or skit to illustrate the poem and/or the points made in the commentary.

Select a Poem That Discusses or Incorporates Indigenous Languages

Start a Book Club Based on Poems Featured in the Collection

  • Encourage students to select a poem in the online collection, and identify a particular theme, topic, or region that it evokes or makes reference to. Then, based on that selection, select a novel by a Native author to pair it with, for students to discuss in class.
  • To bring in global perspectives, you might select international authors whose works focus on themes addressed in this project.

Write a Poem Inspired by a Theme or a Poet Featured in the Collection

  • Ask students to consider how the theme of place emerges; for instance, in Henry Real Bird’s poem “Thought." (Many of the “Living Nations, Living Words” poems explore ideas through the lens of place. Place, in this sense, is more than just where you live: it is part of one’s identity at an innermost level.)
    • Encourage students to write a poem that includes description of meaningful places and familiar landscapes.
    • Student poems can anchor around the question, “What does it mean to think and to learn to be more human?”
    • Support the use of specific references and descriptive imagery so that those who are familiar with and unfamiliar with these places will feel their power.
    • Alternately, instead of the theme of thought, students can use the image of a specific place to illuminate a concept such as joy, failure, or surprise.
  • Ask students to choose a single poem that honors place or family in a way that resonates deeply with them. Then, encourage them to write a poem that tries to honor their place or their family in a way inspired by the original poet. Remind students to be careful not to appropriate or assimilate the original poet’s work.
    • If students find it difficult to narrow their inspiration to a single poem, encourage them to try selecting more than one.
    • A vignette—a short, evocative piece of writing—is a literary form that might work here. Students can consider how to order their poetic stanzas or prose vignettes—e.g., from innocent to mature? From the past to the present? From near their home to far from their home?
  • Some of the poems in “Living Nations, Living Words” explore the specific touchpoint resistance—but they also expand our understanding of this word. Consider, for example, Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to Myself.” Using Erdrich’s poem as inspiration, ask students to compose a poem in which they explore what they should resist doing in order to reconnect with themselves and to experience more around them.