2.6 Nina Simone: Monument and poetry analysis
Provided by UNC Libraries / Documenting the American South.
- analyze Nina Simone’s monument.
- analyze Simone’s song lyrics.
- write a poem responding to Nina Simone’s monument and life story.
Two 45-minute lessons or one 90-minute block
- If student computers are not available give students copies of:
- Song analysis instructions (to project)
- Song/Poem writing instructions (as instructions or to project)
- Notebook paper and writing utensils
- Computer lab or student computers
- Access to these websites:
- Computer with internet access connected to an overhead projector, with speakers
- Access to these Nina Simone songs: iTunes, Google music, Spotify
Prior knowledge and vocabulary
This lesson will work best if students have already learned about American Slavery, and can be incorporated into a unit on the Civil Rights Movement.
Students should also have experience reading and analyzing poems, as a large part of the lesson involves analyzing song lyrics but does not teach these analysis skills. The instructions also ask students to annotate the song lyrics, so they should be familiar with this skill.
For the second activity, students will be in groups, so teachers should choose these beforehand.
For the assessment, students will write a poem. Teachers should decide the length appropriate for their class, and may wish to adjust the included rubric accordingly.
Activity one: Commemorative Landscapes monument and Nina Simone
- Introduce the lesson by asking students what they know about the Civil Rights Movement and/or reviewing previous lessons on the topic. Facilitate a short discussion about the topic.
- Ask students to get out a sheet of paper. Tell them they will be shown a monument of a Civil Rights Activist. They are to silently write a response to the monument: what they imagine about the person based on the sculpture, what emotions they feel looking at it, what they think it symbolizes, etc. Stress that this is a silent activity and that even if they know something about the person honored by the monument, they shouldn’t tell their classmates, as this will be discussed later. Project the monument of Nina Simone and ask students to begin writing, giving them about 5 minutes to complete their response.
- When students are finished, ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. Tell students that Nina Simone was a famous singer and musician from North Carolina, and that she sang songs that were important in the Civil Rights Movement. Ask students if they have any new ideas about the monument now.
- Tell students that now they will read more about Nina Simone on their own, using the Commemorative Landscapes website and another. Pass out the Nina Simone Monument handout-- or instruct students to access this handout on the computer-- and instruct students (individually or in pairs) to use computers to access the Commemorative Landscapes site and the Biography site to answer the questions. Circulate around the room to monitor and answer any questions.
- When students are finished (about 20 minutes later), ask a few volunteers to share their answers. Tell students to keep their handouts, as they will use this information when analyzing Simone’s songs.
Activity two: Song analysis
- Tell students that now that they’ve learned about Nina Simone’s life and background in the Civil Rights Movement, they will listen to and look at the lyrics of some of the songs she wrote and sang as part of her activism.
- First, analyze a song as a class. Pass out the lyrics for “Strange Fruit.” Tell students that this was originally written by Billie Holiday, another African-American jazz singer, and that the song is a metaphor dealing with the historical African-American experience. Warn them that this song is not a happy one, and that it is all right to feel uncomfortable. Play the song, instructing students to listen while following along on the lyrics sheet, and then give them five to ten minutes to write a response (on the lyrics sheet or on notebook paper). If students are advanced at analyzing poems, teachers may wish to just ask them to write a short reflection and analysis after listening. If students need more structure, ask them to answer these questions (written or projected on the board):
- What is the subject of the song? Find specific evidence in the lyrics.
- What is the mood of the poem? Was this reflected in the song you heard?
- What literary devices does Simone use? (symbolism, metaphor, irony, etc.)
- How does this connect to African-American history, and/or the Civil Rights Movement?
- Thinking of Simone’s background, why do you think she chose to perform this song?
- When students have written their response, have them discuss in pairs or small groups for a few minutes. Then facilitate a class discussion, pointing out specific parts of the lyrics and having students take notes on under their written response and the lyrics sheet. Possible discussion points include:
- Point out the first line “strange fruit” and ask which later line tells what the “fruit” really is. If students do not answer “black bodies,” help them find this answer. Ensure that students understand this song is about the lynching of African-Americans. (If collaborating with an American History teacher, ask students what they have learned about this in other classes).
- Ask the students what the effect of contrasting lines such as “scent of magnolia/ clean and fresh/ Then the sudden smell/ Of Burnin’ flesh” has on the audience. Students may come up with answers such as:
- It shows the contrast of what people consider to be a beautiful place with a horrible crime
- It shows that terrible things can happen in nice places.
- It could show that (white) Americans were ignoring the problem by concentrating on other things (the trees, flowers) and not on more serious things.
- Ask why the last line is “strange and bitter crop.” Have students examine each word individually, and what it implies about the time period. Students may come up with answers such as: 1) slavery was described as a “peculiar institution” by Thomas Jefferson, 2) bitter because the people hung were suffering, and so were the other African-Americans who knew this could happen to them, 3) crop because of the metaphor of a fruit on the tree, also because slaves were considered property and this value continued after slavery, African-Americans still weren’t valued as people.
- Ask students why they think Simone chose this song to perform during the Civil Rights Movement.
- After the conversation is finished, tell students that they will now analyze poems in groups. Tell students that they will use the background information they’ve learned about Simone, and their own knowledge of African-American History and the Civil Rights Movement. Each group should have enough computers so that the students can listen to the songs and refer to Simone’s biography as necessary. Facilitate a jigsaw activity using the remainder of the song lyrics in the Nina Simone Song Lyrics document. Teachers may choose to give all students the entire document at this time, or wait to hand out the remaining lyrics sheets in step five for the group discussion. Each station should have computers with headphones so students can listen while following along with the lyrics, and only the copy of their assigned song to avoid confusion.
- Teachers can differentiate by strategically choosing which students will analyze each song.
- “Old Jim Crow” will require historical knowledge and/or ability to find it using online sources. With this knowledge, the analysis will be simpler.
- “Mississippi Goddam” is the longest poem and the most complex to analyze, as it has historical content of a complex problem, and the mood of the lyrics and the tone of the song are different to show irony.
- “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” would be good for students who need practice explaining metaphors, such as “I wish I could break/ All the chains holding me” and similes such as “I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.”
- “Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)” will be good for students who have (or can find) knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr. and need practice interpreting metaphors such as “But he had seen the mountaintop/ And he knew he could not stop.”
- When students have analyzed the lyrics, have them come back to their original group. Each student should share what they learned about their song, while the other students follow along with the song lyrics and take notes on their Song Lyrics Analysis sheets.
- When their discussion is finished, facilitate a discussion with the entire class. Ask questions such as:
- What were the subjects of these songs, and how were they connected?
- Why do you think Simone chose to sing these? What does that tell us about her?
- What feelings/responses did you have when listening and reading the lyrics?
- Finally, project the Nina Simone monument again. Ask students to jot down (on their lyrics analysis sheet) how they see what they’ve learned about Simone reflected in the sculpture. After a few minutes, ask students to share. They may come up with things such as:
- Her facial expression is strong, showing her strength of character and conviction.
- She looks like she’s thinking deeply about something—perhaps the Civil Rights Movement.
- The statue is eight feet tall—showing what a powerful figure she was.
Activity three: Poem (may be completed as homework)
- Tell students that they will now use their knowledge of Nina Simone and her role in the Civil Rights Movement to write a poem of their own. (Teachers may also want to pitch it as a song to students, and/or collaborate with a music teacher).
- Project the poem instructions and/or pass on instruction sheets. Teachers should adjust these instructions to cater to their students’ needs. Go over with students, answering any questions. Repeat this process with the poem rubric.
- If students will work in class, circulate around the room to answer questions.
- Instruct students to turn in their poem, Nina Simone Monument Analysis sheet, and Song Lyrics Analysis sheet together.
The main assessment is the poem, which can be graded with the aid of the provided rubric (teachers should modify the rubric to include their desired traits).
Teachers should also check that handouts from the first activities are completed accurately Supplemental Information.
For more poetry analysis practice, students could compare Simone’s song “Four Women” with the poem Kwame Dawes wrote in Simone’s honor, “What do they call you?” The title of Dawes poem was inspired by a repeated line in “Four Women,” “What do they call me?” Dawes poem can be heard on the video of the dedication ceremony for Simone’s monument.
- Nina Simone monument
- Nina Simone biography
- Nina Simone- I Wish I knew How it Would Feel to be Free
- Nina Simone- Strange Fruit Lyrics for Strange Fruit
- Four Women
- Old Jim Crow (sung by Lizz Wright)
- NPR songs of the Civil Rights Movement
- Video of the monument dedication ceremony
This lesson plan is based on concepts developed by Mary Scott Neill.
- Common Core State Standards
- English Language Arts (2010)
- Grade 11-12
- 11-12.RL.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly...
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- Grade 9-10
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- 9-10.RL.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and...
- Grade 11-12
- English Language Arts (2010)
- North Carolina Essential Standards
- Music Education (2010)
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- Social Studies (2010)
United States History II
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- Visual Arts Education (2010)
Beginning Visual Arts
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- Music Education (2010)