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        Use of Symbolism to Convey the Author's Message - The Negro Speaks of Rivers

        Students identify and interpret literary devices, symbolism and first-person narration as well as answer critical thinking questions and write a paragraph about a Langston Hughes poem.

        Lesson Summary


        After watching a video segment, students identify the literary devices, symbolism and first-person narration in the poem "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." Then, by answering critical thinking questions and writing a paragraph, students propose their ideas regarding Hughes' message by interpreting his use of symbolism in the poem. 

        Why is this an important concept?

        Learning about the use of symbolism helps readers understand how an author can assign meaning or significance to a person, object or event. When students are able to understand how literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, simile, personification, and first-person narration are used in writing, they are more likely to employ these strategies to create opportunities to assign deeper meaning, make vivid choices in language and create interesting connections to concepts and ideas in their own writing.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        2) 50-minute periods

        Media Resources


        The Lesson

        Part I: Learning Activity

        1. Begin by checking for prior knowledge of the history of African Americans directly preceding the Harlem Renaissance period. Write these words or phrases on the board or on chart paper: Jim Crow, segregation, sharecropping, oppressive, migration. Define and or discuss.

        Note: You may choose to visit the Learning Page of The Library of Congress which houses an archive of photos, audio recordings, documents and other archival materials or go to the Timeline of African American History, 1881-1900, for the period preceding the Harlem Renaissance.

        2. Tell students they are going to watch a segment that describes why African Americans left the South and migrated to the North. Ask students to listen for the reasons why many African Americans left the South. Play the first segment, "What was the Harlem Renaissance?" Take student responses and discuss.

        3. Tell students that once African Americans migrated North, the Renaissance period began. During the 1920's-1930's African Americans created many new works of art, literature and music and became more politically engaged. They also developed a new attitude and new way of thinking about themselves that is evident in a poem by Langston Hughes, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." Tell students they are going to watch a second segment about Langston Hughes and hear his famous poem. Ask them to think about the feeling or attitude Hughes expresses in the poem as they watch the segment. Play the second segment, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." Take student responses and discuss. Distribute the The Negro Speaks of Rivers handout and ask students to write their responses there.

        4. Next, ask students to read the poem and identify the rivers and places Hughes mentions. Ask students to think about why those places are mentioned. Again, ask for responses and discuss. Then ask students what they think the rivers symbolize.

        5. Introduce and discuss the definitions of first-person narration and symbolism:

        • First - Person Narration: When the first-person is used in writing it means that the speaker is speaking about himself or herself
        • Symbolism: Occurs when an object, person or event represents a larger, more significant idea.

        6. Distribute the Rivers Symbolism handout. Guide students to answer the questions while watching the video segment, "A Negro Speaks of Rivers" again and discuss.

        For students who need additional teacher guidance:

        • Play the segment repeatedly as needed.
        • Provide examples of symbolism and first person narration.
        • Ask students to think what the rivers in the poem remind them of: a person, an object or an event?

        Part II: Assessment

        Distribute the Rivers Paragraph handout. Guide students to use the poem handout as well as the Rivers Symbolism handout to write a paragraph describing the message Langston Hughes communicates in his poem. Handouts and paragraphs can be placed in a student's folder and use the Rivers rubric to assess skill understanding and acquisition.


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