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Black History Month: Reflecting Upon “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”

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Mrs. Curtis makes note of a student’s inference during discussion of student annotations of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Each week during Black History Month, upper school students sing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” in chapel.  As part of New Hope’s celebration and study of Black History and a year long study of poetry, fourth grade students read and analyzed the powerful lyrics of this historic song by James Weldon Johnson.

Mrs. Curtis, one member of New Hope’s fourth grade teaching team, notes that the annotation lesson was developed in response to her students’ needs.  She says, “I wanted students to annotate the lyrics of this song because I noticed the students’ facial expressions while singing the song in chapel.  Many of them seemed confused and unconnected to the lyrics. I felt the best way to attack this issue was to analyze and annotate the lyrics in chunks. I have been AMAZED at their responses and insights as we have worked through the poem.”

James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem in 1900 to introduce Booker T. Washington, the honored guest, at a celebration in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the Stanton School where Johnson served as principal. (The Stanton School was originally a segregated school located in Jacksonville, Florida, but has grown into a world-renown college preparatory high school.) Johnson’s brother later set the poem to music.

An example of one student’s work

The words of the poem are rich in symbolism and allusions to black history and the Bible.  Fourth graders have spent time reading, discussing, and analyzing each line and word of the poem, seeking the meaning behind the powerful words and making connections to their own knowledge of African-American and Biblical history.  While the poem is not an easy one, students rose to the challenge of developing an understanding of the words and enjoyed the process of “decoding” the poem’s symbols and allusions.

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Students offered ideas from their personal annotations and contributed to the class discussion to create a consensus annotation of the poem, concentrating on what parts of the poem might mean to most people and why it has become known as the “Black National Anthem.”


Students in Mrs. Curtis’s class reflected upon their learning experience in their blogs. Read  portions of a few of the students’ reflections below:

  • Gerrica J. said, “I liked how we did the song.  We explained all  the words and what they meant. . . .The second stanza was harder. It had a lot of long words. I had a hard time doing the second one, but I think I did okay.”
  • Dakota S. wrote, “This song allowed me to reflect on the history of African Americans, from when we were basically captured over in Africa.  That’s why Black History Month is one of my favorite celebrations.  The song tells me about the hope and the courage the African Americans had and still have for many generations to come. . . .  I love the way the author gave so much detail of what we been through throughout the years.”
  • Taylor T. blogged, “From the start I loved annotating, but annotating “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was so much better! When I dug deeper I found the meaning of the song hidden like a code in the words. The line,  “Lift ev’ry voice and sing till’ Earth and Heaven ring,” spoke to me in a way that I felt every word slam into my soul.  Anyway, annotating this song made me feel like Mrs. Carter really knew what she was talking about [when she taught us how to annotate poetry].  I am totally planning to annotate again and again until I’m out of school! This [annotating the poem in reading and reflecting about my learning in the blog] was absolutely one of my greatest experiences in New Hope’s computer class.”
  • Jalynn H. made these connections between the song and her own life, “The song means that God is always watching over me and that the slaves had something to sing about. God is always watching over me through my trials and tribulations. The song makes me feel like I have already been to Heaven. The song lifts me up when I am sad or mad. Every time I am at home, my dad will play this song when I’m mad, and he says that I shouldn’t be mad, because I have something ahead in life. I should never say never and don’t give up on God! I know God would not give up on me either . . .”
  • Jordan C. shares, “I learned about “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” that it has a meaning in every single verse or phrase, that it is dealing with the slaves.  It [annotating the poem] was a great experience, and we got really super deep. I learned a lot  about what the slaves went through.  While we were annotating, I could visualize what they went through.  We are so lucky that God took us from the past.  So we need to thank God every day because we could have been one of those who was whipped every day.  The song taught me to pray even though you are going through stuff.  That is the only thing you can do if you are a Christian.”
Mrs. Currey’s students create Glogs in the computer lab to interpret the poem visually.

Mrs. Currey’s fourth grade class has chosen to integrate technology in another way.  They are reflecting upon this learning experience by creating individual student Glogs.   A Glog is a graphic blog or web poster.  Students are locating images that they feel reflect the meaning of the lyrics of the song and creatively arranging words and pictures in the Glog.  While each poster being developed is focused upon the poem and its meaning, the posters also reflect the individual personality and creativity of the student who created it.  Once the Glogs are finished, we hope to post some of the students’ finished work.

The depth of thought shown by our fourth grade students while annotating and discussing this very difficult poem has been impressive.  New Hope students enthusiastically and courageously attack the hard work of thinking deeply and critically!