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Cover of Naomi Shihab Nye's book SALTING THE OCEAN
For Educators:
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye
More on This Lesson:
Lesson Plan

This lesson is designed for English classrooms, grades 9-12

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
  1. Explain the importance of family and tradition in the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye.
  2. Define stereotypes and understand how poetry can help to dispel them.
  3. Present an oral reading of a poem and interpret it for their classmates.
  4. Understand how poets use imagery to express their feelings about a person or idea.
  5. View a video interview to learn more about an author.
  6. Understand that current events can inspire poetry.
  7. Write a persuasive letter to the author.

Related National Standards
Language Arts Standards


Standard 1
Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Level IV, Benchmark 12
Writes in response to literature (e.g., suggests an interpretation; recognizes possible ambiguities, nuances, and complexities in a text; interprets passages of a novel in terms of their significance to the novel as a whole; focuses on the theme of a literary work; explains concepts found in literary works; examines literature from several critical perspectives; understands author's stylistic devices and effects created; analyzes use of imagery and language).


Standard 6
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary. texts

Level IV, Benchmark 1
Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature).
Level IV, Benchmark 6
Understands how themes are used across literary works and genres (e.g., universal themes in literature of different cultures, such as death and rebirth, initiation, love and duty; major themes in American literature; authors associated with major themes of specific eras).
Level IV, Benchmark 7
Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification).
Level IV, Benchmark 8
Understands relationships between literature and its historical period, culture, and society (e.g., influence of historical context on form, style, and point of view; influence of literature on political events; social influences on author's description of characters, plot, and setting; how writer's represent and reveal their cultures and traditions).
Level IV, Benchmark 8
Understands relationships between literature and its historical period, culture, and society (e.g., influence of historical context on form, style, and point of view; influence of literature on political events; social influences on author's description of characters, plot, and setting; how writer's represent and reveal their cultures and traditions).
Level IV, Benchmark 10
Relates personal response or interpretation of the text with that seemingly intended by the author).

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

Two 90-minute or four 45-minute class periods.

Materials Needed

Part I

  • Handout 1: "My Father and the Fig Tree"
  • Chalkboard, whiteboard or overhead projector
  • Handout 2 (3 pages): "Arabic Coffee," "The Words under the Words," and "My Grandmother in the Stars"
Part II

  • Post-It notes (three per student)
  • Copy of 10/11/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast and TV/VCR. (Note: A free transcript of this segment is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (
  • Handout 3 (2 pages): "Blood" and "Darling"
  • Large map of Middle East, showing Lebanon, Syria, and Golan Heights
  • Handout 4: "Letter from Naomi Shihab Nye, Arab-American Poet: To Any Would-Be Terrorists"

Backgrounder for Teachers

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in the state of Missouri in 1952 to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She still has family in the Middle East, and her poetry often concerns Palestinian life. She is the author of and contributor to many books (listed in the Related Resources section of this lesson plan). Nye sees poetry as a bridge to other cultures in a world that is increasingly marked by dissension. Currently a resident of Texas, Nye has traveled to the Middle East and Asia for the United States Information Agency promoting international goodwill through the arts.

The October 11, 2002 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast features a Bill Moyers interview with Naomi Shihab Nye. (Note: A free transcript of this segment is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS ( This interview provides additional insight into Nye's philosophy on the role of poetry, as well as relationships with family. The NOW Web site also features several of Nye's poems, most of which are included in this lesson plan.

Please see the Related Resources section of this lesson for additional articles and teaching tools related to the writing of Naomi Shihab Nye, and the Middle East in general.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

It is assumed that students have some knowledge of the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, recall the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and understand the meaning of the literary terms imagery and personification.

Teaching Strategy

Part One: Spending Some Time with the Family
(One 90-minute period or two 45-minute periods)

    1. Give students three-five minutes to list in their notebooks objects that they remember from their own childhoods.

    2. Put students in groups of three-four. Allow five minutes for students to share lists, and to tell stories about what these objects were and what they meant.

    3. Distribute Handout 1 with poem, "My Father and the Fig Tree." Read aloud. Then ask students to read again silently. Discuss to elicit:

    a. Who is the speaker? [An adult daughter]

    b. What can we learn about her father from the poem? [He speaks Arabic, therefore probably comes from somewhere in the Middle East; he is wildly enthusiastic about figs; he has a reputation as a dreamer.]

    c. What was his dream? How did it finally come true? How did he share this with his daughter? [To own a fig tree of his own; he moved to a new house where there was a fully-grown fig tree already planted; he sang a special Arabic song for her that she had never heard before.]

    d. What images seem particularly important in this poem? Why? How would the poem be different if these images were omitted? [Answers will vary.]

    e. What do you think the fig tree symbolized to her father? [His old home in the Middle East; his former way of life.]
    4. Explain to students Nye's background as a Palestinian-American living in Texas.

    5. Brainstorm: What words come to mind when students hear the word "Palestinian." Write student suggestions on the board or overhead. [Student suggestions will probably include words associated with terrorism or conflict.] Do these words seem to fit Nye's father? Why not?

    6. Define stereotype and discuss the effects of stereotyping people and groups before one meets them. Has anyone in the class ever been the victim of stereotyping?

    7. Explain that class is going to get to know Nye's family a little through poems that she has written. Distribute Handout 2: "Arabic Coffee," "The Words under the Words," and "My Grandmother in the Stars." Divide class into three or six groups, depending on the size of the class. Assign each group one of the poems on Handout 2 to read, discuss, prepare an oral reading, and present to the class the characteristics of the two individuals (father and grandmother) featured in these poems. Allow about fifteen minutes for group discussion and then have presentations.

    [You might consider, if this is feasible, circulating among students with a plate of cut-up fresh figs to sample while they are working!]

    8. After the presentations, discuss: How does Nye feel about these two members of her family? What words and phrases can you find in these four poems that support your ideas?

    9. Discuss: How does Nye use imagery to enhance your understanding of her feelings and ideas about her family? Which images in the four poems are most vivid and effective? Why?

    10. Closure: Read the following statement by Naomi Shihab Nye to the class:

    To me the world of poetry is a house with thousands of glittering windows. Our words and images, land to land, era to era, shed light on one another. Our words dissolve the shadows we imagine fall between. "One night I dreamt of spring," writes Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut, "and when I awoke/flowers covered my pillow." Isn't this where empathy begins? Other countries stop seeming quite so "foreign," or inanimate, or strange, when we listen to the intimate voices of their citizens. I can never understand it when teachers claim they are "uncomfortable" with poetry -- as if poetry demands they be anything other than responsive, curious human beings. If poetry comes out of the deepest places in the human soul and experience, shouldn't it be as important to learn about one another's poetry, country to country, as one another's weather or gross national products? It seems critical to me. It's another way to study geography!

    [Source: "Lights in the Window" from The ALAN Review. See Related Resources. ]

    You can ask students to respond to this statement orally in class if time permits. If you prefer, give students a copy of the passage and have them respond to it in their journals for homework, incorporating their reflection on the four poems studied so far.

    Part Two: The Family and the Wider World
    (One 90-minute period or two 45-minute periods)

    1. Begin by reviewing the previous day's work. Give each student three small Post-It notes. Ask students to write one full, specific sentence about the narrator of the poems on the first note. On the second note a sentence about her father, and on the third note a sentence about her grandmother. Collect the Post-It notes.

    2. Explain that students are now going to have a chance to hear the poet in an interview. Introduce the video and have students watch Bill Moyers' interview with Naomi Shihab Nye (running time: approximately 12:30). Ask students to listen specifically for Nye's comments about her family, as well as her feelings about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. While they are viewing, sort the Post-it notes and display them on a wall or bulletin board.

    3. Discuss: How did the video give you additional insight into these three people? What additional ideas did it present? How did Nye feel about the events of September 11th? In her position, would you have felt the same way?

    4. Distribute Handout 3. Read the poem "Blood" aloud, then have students read it silently.

    5. Discuss:

    a. According to the poet's father, what is "a true Arab"? Why does "a true Arab" do or say each of these things?

    b. How does the narrator view her father's definition of "a true Arab"?

    c. What events do you think are troubling the narrator's father? Why does she say, "neither of his two languages can reach it"?

    d. Can you suggest any answers for the last three lines?

    e. Why do you think Naomi Shihab Nye calls the poem "Blood"?

    6. Read aloud the poem "Darling." Discuss:

    a. The poem "Blood" represents primarily the viewpoint of the narrator's father. Whose viewpoint is represented in this poem?

    b. What simple images does Nye use in the beginning of the poem? Why does she choose such humble objects to give insight into a wartime situation?

    c. What is the purpose of the phrase "a woman with generous hips like my mother's/said Follow me"?

    d. What do you think has happened to the people described in section 2 of the poem? Use the wall map to briefly review major events in this region in the last ten years.

    e. Explain the idea that Nye develops in section 3. How does she use personification to develop this idea?

    7. Explain that an "open letter" is a published letter addressed to a specific person or group, but is intended for general readership. Tell students that Naomi Shihab Nye wrote an open letter "To Any Would-Be Terrorists" after the attack on the World Trade Center.

    8. Distribute Handout 4, the copy of the letter. Give students twenty minutes to read it silently and then discuss it quietly with a partner to be sure they understand it.

    9. Assignment: Write a persuasive letter to Naomi Shihab Nye in response to all or part of her open letter. Feel free to agree or disagree with her. Use your own life experiences to support your ideas as she does in the original letter.

Assessment Suggestions

1. Assess student presentations on the poems in Part One of the Lesson Plan for understanding, clarity of presentation, and analysis of imagery.

2. If assigned, assess student journal responses to the quoted passage for understanding of the poems, clarity and thoughtfulness.

3. Assess the persuasive letter for content, readability, and mechanics.

Extension Ideas

1. Using Naomi Shihab Nye's poems as models, have students write their own original poetry about an older family member. You might begin by having them bring in a photograph and share photographs and family stories in small groups. Then have them "web" ideas about the person who will be the subject of the poem: physical appearance, clothing, setting, likes and dislikes, significant memories. Remind them that a poem will show, not tell, and that imagery is the key to this. Have students write first drafts, then have peers read to make suggestions and ask questions. Final copies could be submitted on a small poster with the subject's photo displayed for a class "family album."

2. Several of Naomi Shihab Nye's poems mention the trickster character "Joha," who has many names in the Middle East. An explanation of this character may be found in "Children's Literature in Iran: Social and Political Perspectives: Section 1.3, Mulla Nasrudin or Goha". Stories about him under the name "Mulla Nasrudin" can be found at The Capsules of Common Sense. Students might be interested in comparing these stories with more familiar folktales or presenting brief skits based on the tales.

3. You might use poems as the subject of a comparison/contrast essay, in which students look at a poem from a different culture. For example, students could compare the poet's attitude toward her father in "My Father and the Fig Tree" with that expressed in Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" or Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" for more advanced students. The essay should also analyze the imagery used to express the poet's attitude. Another possible contrast would be the theme of postponed dreams in "My Father and the Fig Tree" and Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred."

Related Resources

The Work of Naomi Shihab Nye:

Naomi Shihab Nye has written numerous books of poetry and an autobiographical novel, as well as editing anthologies of other poets' work:

The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East (2002)

19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (2002)

Come with Me (2000)

What Have You Lost? (1999)

Fuel (1998)

The Space between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East (1998)

Lullaby Raft (1997)

Habibi (1996)

Never in a Hurry (1996)

Benito's Dream Bottle (1995)

Words under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

Red Suitcase (1994)

Sitti's Secrets (1994)

Mint (1991)

Invisible (1987)

Yellow Glove (1986)

Hugging the Jukebox (1982)

Different Ways to Pray (1980)

"Lights in the Window," by Naomi Shihab Nye, from The ALAN Review
This essay presents Nye's ideas about the importance of poetry as a bridge to other cultures in a world that is increasing marked by dissension.

"Rough Peace: A Profile of Naomi Shihab Nye," by Trisha Ready
Written in the days after September 11th, Ready notes, "Her voice was assured and comforting; she sounded like the reasonable, kind friend we crave in a crisis."

Other Teaching Tools:

NOW: Middle East Resources
This listing is a great starting point for strengthening your background on issues related to the Middle East. Resources include news sources and other information.

THE WASHINGTON POST: "War and Peace in the Middle East"
This site provides background on the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and includes an interactive guide to the history of the area and a map.

Free Magazines on the Middle East
The organization Aramco publishes a Middle Eastern news and views publication bi-monthly, which they will send free to teachers. Each magazine includes beautiful photography and a number of stories on various topics. The address for Aramco World is Box 469008, Escondido, CA 92046-9008.

About the Author
Eileen M. Mattingly has been teaching English and social studies since 1968. She currently teaches and chairs the English department at McDonough High School in Pomfret, Maryland. She holds a B.S.F.S. degree in International Studies from Georgetown University and has received master's degrees from St. John's University and the Johns Hopkins University, as well as two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has developed teaching materials for multicultural literature for Charles County, Maryland and has presented a workshop on Native American literature for the National Council of Teachers of English. She is currently working on a Teacher's Guide to the novel "Ceremony" for The Center for Learning and serves as a curriculum consultant for the Peace Corps "Voices from the Field" project.

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