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June 19, 2015

Lesson Plan: Exploring identity and intersectionality in poetry

By Douglas Ray

Main lesson plan



Estimated Time

One class period, plus extension activities

Grade Level

10 – 12



This lesson seeks to create a space for students to explore and articulate nuanced aspects of their own identities and those of others.


In this lesson, students will look at aspects of identity through an intersectional lens—that is, seeing multiplicities of identities as inextricably linked within a person and their lived, narrative experiences.

In the texts provided, by Audre Lorde and Danez Smith, both authors occupy multiple identity spaces. Lorde is Black, lesbian, and deaf (among other identities, which she outlines in her essays). Smith is Black, gay, and young. And each work is informed by the experiences of multiple identities. When viewing the texts through an intersectional lens, there’s no way to simplify or reduce the experience of the speakers to just one aspect of identity.

Pre-reading Activity

  1. In a journal, take 5-10 minutes to write about one or more of the following prompts.
    • Talk about one of the first moments you noticed human difference. Begin with this line: “I first noticed his/her/their ____.”
    • Talk about a time when you noticed that something about you was different from those around you. Begin with this line: “I first noticed that I was ____ when ____.”
    • Draw a line down the middle of a page. On the left side, make a list of your identities. On the right side, write about times when you are aware of being one of those identities more than another.
    • Have you ever felt privileged or disadvantaged because of some unchangeable aspect of who you are?

    Optional follow-up: have students self-select a partner with whom to share the response to the prompt. Have each student read aloud his or her work. Do not have them offer criticism or commendation on the writing, just a simple “thank you.”

Main Activity

  1. Have your students read the three poems (links provided in the “Materials” section). Then, ask them to respond in discussion or writing to any of the following:
    • The poems by Lorde and Smith address the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race. Consider each poem as an argument and a conversation. What does each poem say to you, the reader, as its argument? And how could the arguments in each poem be in conversation with each other?
    • Discuss how each piece wrestles with occupying multiple identity spaces, especially when those identities are oppressed. How do you experience the poems differently than prose? Could you take the poems and turn them into prose? Why or why not?
    • In his explanation of “poem where I be & you just might,” Danez Smith asks, “Have you ever been black and queer in a small Midwestern town? Makes for some good stories, huh?” He later also says, “There is beauty and safety in being the same as those around you.” The poem itself paints a picture of loneliness and silences, but the poem has a sense of possibility too. Write a poem where you re-imagine something from your past, but do it gently, as Smith does in his last two stanzas.
    • Using two or more of the provided texts, make an argument against focusing one aspect of a person’s identity at the expense of the others. For example, why is it problematic to read Audre Lorde as either a lesbian or African American?
  2. Ask students to take one of the poems and use it as a guide for their own exploration of identities in poetry. Have them share their poems with others, via a recording or in-class reading.

Extension lesson plan



The three poets, like Lorde and Smith, occupy multiple identity spaces. Herrera, the freshly minted U.S. Poet Laureate, mentions in his interview that both visibility and voice were crucial to his coming-of-age as a poet. Trethewey and Chan also explore both visibility and voice in their poetry and poetics.

View the stories and videos related to each poet’s work and ask your students to what experiences these poems and these poets bear witness. Are these poets making an argument that we see the world differently or behave in a particular manner? Have students explain how they are interpreting their work.

Main Activity

  1. Ask your students to respond to one or the following prompts in writing:
    • All three of these poets concern themselves with both their own intersectional identities and the intersection of the personal and the political. Write a poem or a short personal essay where you consider some aspect of your own personal history (or present) and how your story blends and bends with that of a larger, more expansive history (or present).
    • The three poets focus on aspects of social justice and injustice. Spend some time thinking about what makes you angry or sad about the world. Now, see if you can write down 5 or 6 concrete images associated with that idea of injustice. Use your five senses, memory and imagination. Write a poem of no more than 12 lines that uses at least four of these images to paint your vision of the injustice you want to expose or the experience that you think deserves to be given vision and voice.

Douglas Ray is Poet-in-Residence at Indian Springs School in Birmingham, Alabama.

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