A mini unit on


Gwendolyn Brooks:

Poet, Novelist, Wife, Mother, and Teacher

Famous Person: Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (1917- )

Related Topics: Self Esteem


(Specifically integrated in Health Education, Social Studies, and Language Arts)

Grade Level: 5th/6th

Author: Sharon Crowley Call

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"Goodness begins simply with the fact of life itself."

--Gwendolyn Brooks

Just to see the sun rise and see people in their ordinary lives doing their ordinary daily tasks was extraordinary for Gwendolyn Brooks. As a poet and novelist, Gwendolyn believed that what she needed to write about were the ordinary things people did, because in them was magic. It was this belief that paved the way for her, the first black woman, to receive the Pulitzer Prize (1950) in poetry for her work Annie Allen (1949).

Her other major works include A Street in Bronzeville (1945), The Bean Eaters (1960), Selected Poems (1963), In Mecca (1968), and one novel for children Maud Martha (1953). In her career as a poet she was also a wife, mother, and a teacher. She was eventually named Illinois' Poet Laureate in 1968, and served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985-1986. She has been awarded over 50 honorary doctorates, and many prizes and awards. She is the only American to receive the Society of Literature Award from the University of Thessaloniki, Athens, Greece in 1990. A couple of her most notable contributions to learning has been to sponsor many poetry contests (in which she used her own money as rewards), and the many workshops she has taught encouraging young people to write.

As an inducted member to the National Woman's Hall of Fame, Gwendolyn has grown into her greatness. Her journey began in 1917 on June 7th, in Topeka, Kansas where she was the first born of David and Keziah Brooks. David and Keziah believed in education a lot and had ideals and values that were instilled into Gwendolyn at a very young age. They encouraged her to write and develop the talent that was within her. As she grew so did her ability to express herself through her writing. At the age of 7, she began writing. In her youth, she wrote about nature and family, but as time wore on she began to change her writing style and views. As she entered college the issue of color began to rage throughout the nation. Though this issue was felt by her as a child, and she knew that "white" was the preferred color, she secretly "believed that black was beautiful" (Shaw 20). As a child she was described as shy, "pensive and often alone" (Shaw 19). Under her shyness she gained a strong sense of who she was. Her growing confidence about her abilities emerged when she was a young adult.

After marrying Henry Blakely in 1939, she pursued her strong interest in writing. In 1943, to her surprise and amazement, her debut into the world as a black poet began. She won the Midwestern Writers' Conference poetry award. She gained more confidence and submitted more of her work to be published. Thus began the trail to winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

There are several themes in her writing, many of them dealing with the ordinary life and ordinary tasks with which she was familiar. One deeper theme she expresses is that of finding the goodness in each of us, particularly among her own people. She believed that her purpose and "artistic excellence doesn't come by trying to be above the conditions of the black ghetto, but by raising the level where the condition usually is perceived" (Shaw Preface). By having an opportunity to fully understand her poetry all have a chance to see and understand humans better, to appreciate the black way of life as a contribution to the world we live in.

Though Gwendolyn was not a vocal activist during the civil rights movement, she believed and celebrated black culture through her writing. She stated, "blacks should be for blacks, but not against whites " (Shaw 31). She wanted to send the message to look inside yourself see the goodness that is there and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. She had a deep understanding and commitment to who she was as an individual as well as a member of the Black culture. Her place was not to fight loudly, but rather through her words and daily actions. Her skin color did not affect her dreaming, striving, and becoming what she wanted to become. She shaped and molded her life to be an example of that. She drew upon her creative talent and did not apologize for or use her skin color for attention. This is what many see as her greatest quality.

Gwendolyn sent the message to whites of the depth that a black woman can have, but she also sent the message to the blacks to refuse to be "obsessed with race" (Kent 66). Hers was a message of hope and dreams. The key is to look at the simple ordinary things of life and recognize that even in what may be small or not overpowering has a magnificence of its own. It is up to us to discover that beauty in each of us.

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"Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c)1994 Microsoft Corporation.

Copyright(c) 1994 Funk & Wagnalls Corporation.


Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.


Shaw, Henry B. Gwendolyn Brooks. Ed. by Warren French. Boston: Twanye Publishers, 1980.

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1. Students will design a journal cover using pictures, poems, drawings, ect. that is representative of a celebration of themselves. (Celebrating of oneself is a main theme in Gwendolyn's writings.)

2. Students will write a description of a quality that is a strength of theirs.

3. Students will listen during the value whip activity with respect as others share with each other their strengths and values, realizing that if there are differences that it is okay.

4. Students will write a poem about themselves.

5. Students will read and respond to a letter written by their parent/guardian.

6. Students will write about at least one dream and one goal they will accomplish toward achieving that dream.

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Time Allotment:

Approximately 5 to 6 class periods.

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Resources Needed:

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Prior to starting this unit, send the parent letter home (see appendix).


1. Mini-Lecture. The purpose of this mini-lecture is to introduce Gwendolyn to the class. Explain who she was and her major themes found in her writing (See biographical information). Discuss what she believed and valued (ie. family, education, expression of self through poetry, people, and life). As a small child, Gwendolyn felt the support from both of her parents. They always encouraged her to continue writing. Be sure to say that she valued people in their ordinary lives doing ordinary things.


2. Art Activity. From your discussion about Gwendolyn, explain that they are going to create their own journal covers that represent themselves. Gwendolyn had a notebook of her own to record her thoughts. Have magazines, poetry books, stickers, extra construction paper available to use when they are designing their covers. They may also use resources from home if they choose. Emphasize that if they were asked to hand their journals to a person who did not know them, would the person be able to figure out some things about them? Give each student a journal that is ready to decorate. (i.e., A piece of paper folded in half with lined paper in the middle and stapled.) They may cut the journal into a shape if they choose to. The students will design their covers.


3. Think-Pair-Share. Individually, have the students think of one thing they consider a strength of theirs. In pairs, have students share their strength with each other and them have the pairs tell a strength about the other person. Remind the class what kind of listeners they need to be as you discuss their responses. As a class share some of the qualities that were discussed in the partnership. Be sure to write these on an overhead or blackboard. (You will use this list later). Discuss that each strength and positive quality that was talked about in the pair is important to the individual as well as to the whole class. Writing them down helps us discover who we are. Mention that this was a belief of Gwendolyn's.


4. Journal. Have the students record in their journals the strengths that were discussed in their pairs and as a class.


5. Value Whip. The objective of this activity is to get a lot of class participation and quick response. Present a "value" question (see appendix) and allow the students to think about the question for a minute or two. Call on each student to quickly respond to the question. If a child chooses to pass that is fine. Begin this activity by explaining that Gwendolyn believed it was important to know what you believe about different topics. It makes you a stronger person in society. This activity gives students an opportunity to think about how they feel or believe about different topics and respond to the topic.


6. Language Arts/Poetry. Ask the students to give some examples of poems. Then share two poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. Discuss that poetry is a form of writing that takes an experience, thought, or idea and with precision and clarity makes a point very carefully. That is, it is a condensed form of writing. If you choose to, discuss basic elements of poetry such as rhyme, meter, and beat or the different forms of poetry. Write a class poem about what was discussed either in the Value Whip activity or the strengths activity (refer to the class list of strengths) to model what you want them to do when they write a poem about themselves. Instead of using the class material as a model you may want to model a poem about yourself. Choose a way to model writing a poem that would be most effective for your class. On a piece of paper have them write a poem about themselves. When it is completed, have them record their poem in their journals.


7. Parents' Letters. Have the children open the letter that their parents sent with them and give them a chance to read and respond to the letter in their journal. Attach the letter to the journal for the students to keep. (See appendix for parent letter.) Remind the students that one thing that Gwendolyn valued were her parents who inspired and encouraged her. Be sure to see if each child has a letter. If the parents do not respond, either call and remind the parent, ask the principal to write a letter, or write a letter yourself.


8. Time Line Activity. Discuss what and when events occurred in Gwendolyn's life. Explain that she dreamed of being a poet, made goals, and sought after them. Show how it took time to achieve those goals, but she started at an early age (seven years old). (See appendix for time line.) Ask the students to write a time line of their life. If they need help from home, have them do as much as they can in class and then have them take it home. Ask them also to think of a dream they have and one or two goals they can set to help achieve that dream.


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1. Journal Cover- Did the students create a cover that gives some information about themselves pictorially or in written form (i.e. poetry)? This will be assessed informally through observation.

2. Contributions to Think-Pair-Share and group discussion will be assessed informally through observation.

3. Values Journal entry will be assessed.

4. Observations or responses from the Value Whip activity will be recorded. (Did the student respond or demonstrate through their actions that they thought about the question.

5. The "Me" poem will be assessed.

6. Child Response to parent letter will be assessed. (Did the child respond to the letter?)

7. The time line activity will be assessed.

8. Dreams and goals journal entry will be assessed.

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Letter to Parent:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

Our class is studying Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) for her poetry. A major theme in her writing is to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and to find greatness in life. As part of this mini-unit, your child is keeping a journal to record many of the things we will be learning about. Please write a one or two paragraph letter sharing something special you see in your child. They will be reading and responding to your letter in their journals. Please return this letter in a sealed envelope by _____________, so that it may be opened in class. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me. Thanks for your help and support!


Mrs. Sharon C. Call


Value Whip Questions

*Name something that is very special to you.

*Name two characteristics you consider a hero/heroine to have.

*What single characteristic do you look for in a friend.

*Name a time when you stood up for a principle you believed in, a friend, or something else.



Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks

Eventide (written by Gwendolyn at 13 years)


When the sun sinks behind the mountains,

And the sky is besprinkled with color,

And the neighboring brook is peacefully still,

With a gentle, silent ripple now and then;

When flowers send forth sweet odors,

And the grass is uncommonly green,

When the air is tranquilly sweet,

And children flock to their mothers' side[s],


Then worry flees and comfort presides

For all know it welcoming evening.


We Real Cool

The Pool Players

Seven at the Golden Shovel


We real cool. We

Left school. We


Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We


Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We


Jazz June. We

Die soon.


Time line

1917 June 7 Gwendolyn is born in Topeka, Kansas

1917 Gwendolyn and her parents move to Chicago, Illinois

1924 Gwendolyn writes her first poems

1933 Gwendolyn meets her heroes James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes.

1934 Gwendolyn graduates from Englewood High School.

1939 Gwendolyn marries Henry Blakely.

1940 Son, Henry Jr., is born.

1943 Gwendolyn wins the Midwestern Writers' Conference poetry award.

1945 A Street in Bronzeville is published.

1950 Gwendolyn, the first black woman, wins the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her work Annie Allen.

1951 Daughter, Nora, is born.

1953 Maud Martha (novel) is published.

1964 Gwendolyn receives her first honorary doctorate.

1968 In Mecca is published.

1968 Gwendolyn is Laureate of Illinois.

1972 Report from Part One, her autobiography, is published.

1985 Gwendolyn is appointed Consultant to the Library of Congress.

1988 Gwendolyn is inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

1990 Gwendolyn receives the Society for Literature Award from the University of Thessaloniki, Athens, Greece. She is the first American to receive this award.


Just for Fun:

Gwendolyn Brooks New Year's Resolutions in 1934

1. Write some poetry everyday.

2. Write some prose everyday.

3. Draw everyday.

4. Improvise at least ten pieces of music.

5. Invent several dances, including variations of the tap dance, and know them perfectly.

6. Sing persistently and improve voice by 1935.

7. Have at least seven stories accepted, and paid for by 1935?

8. Have at least fifteen poems accepted and published during the year.

9. Practice the piano continually.

10. Use correct English.

(From George Kent's book pg.27) (By the way, she did revise these later in the year.)


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