National Writing Project

Other People's Lives: Persona Poems Teach Insight and Empathy

By: Linda Christensen
Publication: Rethinking Schools
Date: Spring 2015

Summary: In this article from Rethinking Schools' new book, Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, Linda Christensen—director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College—pays homage to the persona poem, her go-to lesson plan for teaching social imagination and encouraging her students "to get inside the head and heart of another human being."


Poetry allows students to inhabit the lives of others, to use their imaginations to humanize the abstractions of poverty, war, racism. It can be an opportunity to create literature vivid enough for the reader—and the writer—to be moved by people and their circumstances: the unaccompanied minors riding trains and crossing deserts from Central America, the children terrorized by bomb blasts shattering the concrete walls of their homes in Gaza, the women and children sewing shirts for U.S. teenagers in Honduras and China and Vietnam, the Yakama fighting coal exports on the Columbia River. I want my students to use poetry to cross the boundaries of race, nationality, class, and gender to find their common humanity with people whose history and literature we study."

Linda describes how she uses history, film, literature, and the news to prepare students to write the poem.

Students enter the persona poem through a literary or historical character. Typically, I saturate my students in a unit—reading historical texts, novels, plays, short stories, poetry, and film clips. Throughout the entire unit, they take notes in order to understand the content, to collect evidence toward discussions and essays, and also to figure out what piques their interests. Along the way, I ask them to 'capture language or images that sear into you, watch for words or phrases that evoke memories or feelings.'"

She has the class read and study a former student's persona poem as an example of what is possible in their own work.

We read Patricia Smith's and Martín Espada's poetry, but my previous students' poetry offers more accessible models. Reading the writing of graduates from their school makes producing this level of work feel possible. Sometimes they know the poet. Nowadays, the "older" student poets who still "speak" from the pages of our literary magazine are the aunts and uncles or parents of some of my current students. Legacies.

I use my former student Khalilah Joseph's poem "Becoming American" as an example because I like the way she takes the situation and details from the original text to create her poem. Khalilah wrote from the scene in Nisei Daughter when the family burned their Japanese possessions because neighbors warned them about 'having too many Japanese objects around the house.' I pass out the relevant excerpt from Sone's book and we read it out loud."

About the Author
LINDA CHRISTENSEN is Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, Teaching for Joy and Justice, and Rhythm and Resistance.

This article originally appeared in Rethinking Schools, Spring 2015. Used with permission. .

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