by Kelsey Hughes
Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool” is a perfect choice for the classroom for many reasons—its brevity (which is, of course, appealing to students at first glance) allows for deep-digging into a small space; the speaker’s voice is palpable and relevant to many teens; and the possibilities for connecting the poem’s themes and tone to a class novel are endless.
This year, I used “We Real Cool” when teaching S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I presented the poem to students at the beginning of class and let Brooks read the poem herself (Listen here). Her introduction provides a good backstory before reading the poem, and by listening to Brooks read aloud, the students are able to benefit from hearing her rhythm and her voice as she reads the poem beautifully. The students then re-read the poem multiple times on their own, marking up the text each time through a new layer--be it through line-by-line extractions of meaning, notes about repetition and figurative language, or even insights into the poem’s progression. After ample time with the text, we “tear apart” and discuss the poem together on the SmartBoard.
After making sense of the poem in isolation, I then ask the students to make a connection between this poem and The Outsiders. I intentionally leave the question, “How does this poem connect to The Outsiders?” open-ended, as the connections range from connections of theme to tone and form. Students surprise me with the amount of meaningful connections they can make with this poem.
After discussing their connections, I then had them look at the definition of “reclaim”* and ask how the speaker here is reclaiming his identity. I then take them to the moment in The Outsiders where the Greasers are almost pronouncing their own “manifesto” before the big rumble; here, we closely read this excerpt and discuss how Greasers are “reclaiming” their identities and why they might need to do this.
A creative writing option would be to have students write a poem in which they reclaim their own identities. This could be a pastiche poem, where students utilize the form and the repetition of “We” or “I” to create their own manifesto. An added challenge would be to require the students to incorporate gradual shift in tone that Brooks creates in “We Real Cool.”
Kelsey R. Hughes is a writer and English Teacher at Lenape and Holicong Middle Schools in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her published and unpublished works can be found at www.kelseyrhughes.weebly.com.
*reclaim: retrieve or recover (something previously lost, given, or paid); obtain the return of.