|Lesson Plan Three: Native American Myths and the Prose Poem
Who are we?Where do we come from? And the rivers? And the blue rain? And those stars shining just beyond me?
Just questions of a child? Or questions of all eternity? Our human history is rich with the myths and stories created to answer just these questions and no where is it richer than in Native American myth. In this lesson, students will read examples of myths that focus on the origins of things or focus on natural elements in the world, such as Why The North Star Stands Still, and they will be invited to write their own myths about the birth of the river or rain.
To begin their myths, your students will identify and describe general characteristics of the Native American myth that they find in the examples they read, and discuss the significance of myth in Native American culture. Choosing one myth, students will then analyze the myth in their journals, creating a list of what they think should be included in their myths. You will then share with them the characteristics of a prose poem and offer them an example. Before starting their own myths, students will explore the scientific explanation of where rivers and rain came from. Students will then write their own myths about the river or rain as prose poems.
But before you go . . .you might want to check out this site on Frances Densmore, * a young music teacher in the early 20th century who took it upon herself to record on her little cylinder recorder the songs of the Indians she met. At the site, go to the Table of Contents link and you will find links to audio recordings of Indian song. Click on this "Magic Lantern" link * and you can hear and see a presentation on Native American song and dance created from the original pictures and recordings of Frances Densmore. If you have a smart classroom, this might be an interesting way to get your students into the mood for Native American myth-making. This site is the courtesy of the Minnesota Public Radio.
Sitting Bull 1882
Library of Congress
Once again, you will use journal writing and classroom discussion as a way to prepare your students for writing their river or rain myths as prose poems. Your students will begin by reading one or more myths that focus on the beginnings of something: the creation of the North Star, how animals and birds were created, or the origins of light. In their journals, your students will write down their reactions to the myths and a description of what they see as general characteristics of these myths by answering some "Questions to Consider." You can then open the floor for discussion and explore what the meaning and function of myths were for the Native American Indian. Let your students share their journal entries with each other and perhaps come up with a list of common characteristics of Native American myths that students can use when they create their own myths about the birth of the river or the rain.
Writing the Journal: To begin the journal exercise, you will give your students a chance to read one or more Native American myths. If you choose to use one of your own, be sure to use one that describes the birth or origin of something so that your students will be able to use it as a model for their myths. To help you understand the role and characteristics of Native American myths, I have included some links to some secondary resource materials. Before you begin reading the following materials, here are some Recommendations for The Student Journal Assignment.
Click on the Native American Myth links* below for (for your students you can print these out directly from your browser window:
Evers, Larry (1983). Continuity and Change in American Indian Oral Literature. ADE Bulletin 075, pp 43-46. Accessed May 2004
This fascinating essay on the American Indian Oral tradition deserves to be read in its entirety, but it contains an especially relevant passage on “true” and “fictional” narratives starting with paragraph 11.
Mythology, Encarta Online Encyclopedia
Helpful overview of the characteristics and types of myths in general
Native American Religions, Encarta Online Encyclopedia,
A good general reference article on Native American Religions with especially relevant sections (III A and B) on Native American Spirit World and Mythology.
The Middle Ground Project at University of Northern Colorado These online resources on the Navajo Indian culture are part of a five-year grant program from the US Department of Education, entitled "Presidential Academy in American History and Civics Education."
Charles Baudelaire, the French poet considered the founder of the prose poem form.
(Cover of Baudelaire's Little Poems in Prose)
Interestingly, the prose poem is a perfect match in form for the myth. Myths use devices such as repetition and enumeration. Prose poems, which contain no line breaks, stanzas, or traditional rhyming patterns, rely on repetition of words, phrases, grammatical structures and sounds, and lists of things for rhythm and music (hyperlink to Prose poem website). Myths are filled with vivid images—the listener begins to inhabit the world created by the storyteller. Prose poems are based on vivid imagery as well, imagery of the senses that reveals meaning rather than tells meaning. Myths are seeped in what is magic and sacred; prose poems often move to the surreal, to what might make emotional sense rather than logical sense.
What is most important here for your students is the understanding that though the prose poem is not written in the traditional form of poetry with line and stanza breaks, many other devices of poetry appear in it: sound patterns like alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), rhythmic patterns (through the repetition of word, phrase, and sentence patterns), and figurative language (such as simile and metaphor.)
The prose poem allows them to recognize that there is more to poetry than line breaks and a rhyming pattern at the end of lines. Working with a myth allows students to move toward the magic of surrealism without necessarily realizing they are doing this. The poems may begin couched very definitely in what is real and concrete, but slowly drift or dramatically soar into images that make no logical sense, but make emotional sense.
Note: since your students' prose poem myths will be on the birth of the river or rain, you may want to provide them with a Short History of Rivers by Patrick McCully at the International Rivers Network for some scientific information on how rivers formed.
The Poem Resources and Assignment Instructions
Creating the Prose Poem: To help you understand what the prose poem is, and the controversies surrounding the prose poem versus straight prose, please click on the following links. You may or may not choose to use some of the prose poems in this sites as examples for your students:
Click on the Prose Poem links* below for:
A quick introduction to The Prose Poem at the Academy of American Poets.
Warning to the Reader: A prose poem example by the contemporary American poet, Robert Bly
For those of you who want a more indepth exploration of The Prose Poem, read an interview with Robert Bly that followed his AWP conference session: "The State of Prose Poetry: Straddling the Imaginary Line Between Poetry and Prose."
Michael Benedikt is a contemporay poet well-known for his prose poems. His site contains additional prose poem examples.
Click on the Prose Poem Assignment link below for:
Science Extension Activity: The Water Cycle
Native American traditions and history often use myths and story-telling to explain natural phenomena (rain, earthquakes, drought). Modern science uses the water cycle to explain how precipitation falls from the sky, filling rivers and streams which then flow to the oceans. The following activities from the U.S. EPA build on the information given in Patrick McCully’s article and teach your students about how water travels through the water cycle and across the earth.
Each of the following activities includes all information necessary for you to run the exercise including materials needed, background information, time requirements, and discussion questions.
Science Resource Links
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Divided by grade levels, this page lists the EPA’s water activities for K-12 students that are found in the Water Sourcebook. It includes the activities listed in the science extension along with scores of other hands-on water education lessons.
Missouri Botanical Garden
Provides easy-to-understand explanations of the water cycle along with descriptions of the earth’s biomes and various ecosystems.
Montana State University’s Native Waters Program
This outreach program is dedicated to increasing awareness and respect for tribal water resources. This community education initiative supports the efforts of tribal leaders, educators, and students to develop contemporary, scientifically accurate, and culturally sensitive water education resources, programs and networking opportunities. It also includes helpful links to tribal websites, colleges, and the “Native Waters: Sharing the Source” exhibit.
For the Young
The myth prose poem lesson is probably the easiest one to modify for the young. The myths included in this lesson are for all ages. The focus of the prose poem should be on descriptive images and imaginative tales of how the rain or the river was born. You might talk science first, using information from Short History of Rivers by Patrick McCully at the International Rivers Network, and then encourage your kids to be imaginative and wild in creating their own myths.
Myths, Folktales &Fairytales Website by Scholastic Books
Especially for teachers with young students, this website provides myth-making lessons created by noted children's authors such as Jane Yolen. It also provides a very cool "myth-brainstorming" machine for the wired classroom or computer lab.