ONE OF THE IMPORTANT CHALLENGES of social studies instruction is to help students appreciate a variety of geographic locations in a reflective, meaningful way. For the study of the Americas, teachers possess a wide range of resources to explore themes from different perspectives in order to understand continental events more holistically. An often overlooked resource is poetry.
Poetry, in addition to being a powerful literary genre, can be used in the social studies as a significant and fertile source of information. This is particularly true when studying the Americas. Poetry allows teachers to explore a broad range of social studies topics. Poems can help them emphasize geographic concepts that describe natural or cultural features, as well as political, economic, and social aspects of a region. Poetry can be used as a "primary source" when poets describe the historical events that they have lived through. For example, in the epic poem, "La Aruacana," (1) Alonso de Ercilla recounts his experiences during the Spanish conquest of Chile. More commonly, poets recreate images of a significant historical event they did not witness or experience first-hand but that nonetheless influenced and shaped their identity. Viewed in this way, students could analyze the poem as a "secondary source."
Despite the various possibilities of poetry for the social studies, teachers rarely use it, thus forfeiting its enormous potential to illustrate diverse social, historical, or geographical concepts and processes to children. In this article, we will explain common ways to use poetry for middle-school social studies classrooms. To illustrate, we will present examples from a unit on Latin America. The unit features the poetry of Gabriela Mistral (2) and Pablo Neruda (3), both Chilean poets who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and 1971, respectively.
Poetry offers creative curricular possibilities to integrate language arts and social investigation. Teachers should help students explore the literary features of poems prior to their analysis for social study. As illustrated by the poems selected for this article, the powerful and often disturbing images, metaphors, and vocabulary merit special attention in order for students to base meaningful social investigations on them. Poetry may be used at different points in a social studies unit to focus students' interest, to organize the unit's content, and to deliver specific information. In addition, poetry may serve as a diagnostic, formative, or summative evaluation strategy.
A teacher, intending to motivate students to study Latin America, might begin with the poem "America, I Do not Invoke Your Name in Vain" from Pablo Neruda's Canto General (see p. 217). (4)
The instructor should recite or play a professional recording of the poem. The teacher might also give students a copy of the poem so that, individually or in small groups, they can read it for themselves and reflect and analyze its language, metaphors, and images, and look up vocabulary words. After hearing and discussing the poem, students can construct a list of topics that they wish to investigate further. Students should be encouraged to research the flora, fauna, geographic features, and historical events of the Americas mentioned in the poem. They might connect the poem's vocabulary and meanings to different regions or countries in the Americas by identifying glaciers and volcanoes, for example, or the migratory patterns of birds and insects from North to Central and South America. Poems such as "America" may introduce alternative perspectives and voices for students' interpretation of historical events and processes. For example, Neruda's images raise critical questions from the perspective of the indigenous populations about the European conquest of the Americas. Students might be prompted to investigate further the history suggested in the phrase "Guatemala's humiliated peace"--what was the role of the Catholic church in the military conquest of the two Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Vera Paz (Upper and Lower True Peace)? …