Natasha Trethewey “History Lesson”

This is the seventh installment in a series at #TeachLivingPoets. The Poet Laureate Project features a different U.S. Poet Laureate each month during the 2019-2020 school year. Guest author Ann Cox highlights one or two of their poems, suggests activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touches upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America. Ann Cox has over 20 years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Lit, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project.

logoThis month’s featured poet is Natasha Trethewey, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012-2014. Her honors include a Pulitzer Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and inductions into the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Trethewey focuses on both the personal and the historical in her work. Academy of American Poets Chancellor Marilyn Nelson said, “Natasha Trethewey’s poems plumb personal and national history to meditate on the conundrum of American racial identities…Trethewey encourages us to reflect [and] learn….” I’ve chosen her poem “History Lesson” to showcase how artfully she blends the personal with the historical.


Ways to Introduce the Poem

Ask students to pull up a photo from their phones and write for a few minutes about it. They can consider who is the photo, where and when it was taken, what emotions it brings up, etc.

Play Ed Sheeran’s song “Photograph.” Students can journal specifically about the lyrics of the song or reflect in general on how photos capture moments in time.

Working with the Poem

Begin by reading “History Lesson” aloud while students listen. Then distribute copies of the poem and read it aloud a second time, this time asking students to annotate as you read. If your students are inexperienced with annotation, you might consider a simple method such as hearts (for words/phrases/lines they love), question marks (for confusing lines or unfamiliar vocabulary), and exclamation points (for those insightful “ah-ha” moments). 

Next, distribute sticky note pads to each student. Begin a discussion of the poem’s structure by pointing out its six short stanzas. Using six sticky notes, students should record one word from each stanza they think is the most important. Write the numbers one through six on the board. Students should place their sticky notes from each stanza with the corresponding numbers. Then begin a discussion, encouraging students to defend their choices as well as look for connections among the word lists you’ve created. If other elements of structure do not naturally come up in the conversation, be sure to ask the following:

  • How does Trethewey divide up the description of the speaker and her grandmother?
  • How does she use repetition to connect the speaker and her grandmother and to bring the poem full circle?
  • How does the poet describe the sand the speaker stands on? How does she describe the sand the grandmother stands on? Why is there a difference?

You may also wish to share more information about segregated beaches with your students. I suggest “America’s Segregated Shores: Beaches’ Long History as a Racial Background” or “How Civil Rights Wade-Ins Desegregated Southern Beaches.”


“History Lesson” can be paired with a variety of texts about the Civil Rights era. Both CommonLit and Teaching Tolerance offer materials to teach the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which led to the desegregated beaches mentioned in the poem. You could also pair “History Lesson” with the memoir Warriors Don’t Cry or the nonfiction graphic novel series March. The Poetry Foundation also offers a collection called Poetry and the Civil Rights Movement, a wonderful mix of classic and contemporary poems.

Teaching this poem also creates an opportunity for students to write about their own childhood photos. You can share Rita Dove’s “Fifth Grade Autobiography” as another poetry model or use these examples if you want to give the option to write an essay instead.

Before students begin writing, you may find it useful to have them brainstorm about their photographs using the following questions:

  • Describe the setting of the photograph. Include details such as the season, weather, time of day, year, etc.
  • Who is pictured in the photo? What is your relationship to them?
  • What is the mood of the photograph?
  • Are there sounds, smells, or tastes going on in the photo? Describe them.
  • Who’s taking the picture? If you don’t know, guess.
  • Why was this photo taken? A special occasion or holiday? Just for fun?
  • What emotions are expressed in the photo? What emotions do you feel as you look at the picture?
  • What is going on that we cannot see? Are there any secrets hiding in the photograph?

Alternatively, you can ask students to develop an ekphrastic poem using an unfamiliar photograph. More details about writing ekphrastic poems can be found in this ReadWriteThink lesson plan

I hope you were inspired by these ideas for teaching Natasha Trethewey’s work. Join me again next month, when I’ll feature our current U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

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3 thoughts on “Natasha Trethewey “History Lesson”

  1. Pingback: At the Kitchen Table with Joy Harjo | #TeachLivingPoets

  2. Pingback: Teaching Rita Dove – 3 poems for all levels (upper elementary to high school) | #TeachLivingPoets

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