“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus”

 A new lesson worked beautifully today. Don’t you love when that happens?

Our American Studies class is beginning to focus on American immigration. We will consider the great wave of immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century as well as current issues and attitudes about immigration.

  We started today by looking at images of the Statue of Liberty as an object of art. What is her facial expression? What does her body language say? Why is she in the harbor facing outward? Many students thought she looks angry. What an interesting response. I’ve always thought she looks serious. Maybe not exactly welcoming but not quite angry either.

Anyway, next we turned to the 1883 Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus.” First we looked at the rhyme pattern to provide an opportunity for the students to consider the formality of the poem’s structure. After reading the poem, we talked about the classical concept of Colossus as another example of how American ideals are frequently based on the ancient Greek civilization. Liberty’s words at the end of poem were familiar to many students, but we went through them slowly, talking about their tone and how it was achieved.

Then I simply asked, “Do we still believe these words?” Duncan said that he thought the words were probably idealistic even in 1883, drawing upon our recent reading of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle to point out that we didn’t really want “wretched refuse” but rather strong, healthy workers. When I asked if our society acts as if they believe in the Lazarus poem, most students said No. When I asked if they personally agreed with the poem’s attitude, many said Yes.

Next we watched a video featuring slam poet Karen Finneyfrock’s “The Newer Colossus.” This 2008 poem uses some of the Lazarus language and imagery but relates it to contemporary American consumerism. Some students thought her poem was unfairly biased; others agreed with her perspective.

Then, with about fifteen minutes left in the period, I asked students to flip over their copies of the poem to its blank back sides and write at the top “The Newest Colossus” and “2011.” Then I asked them to quickly either design a new statue for the harbor or write a new poem for a new statue. They needed to have something in six minutes, and I said it was fine to work alone or with someone else.

Six minutes later, we turned on the document camera and looked at some projections of new statue designs. Conor showed us a hip-hop statue that wasn’t really interested in much but itself. Alex presented a statue reminiscent of Liberty but pointing outward as if to say, “Get Out.” I asked to hear some of the poems. Joaquin’s included most of the last part of the Lazarus poem with the addition of this phrase: “But show your papers.” Ryan and Aricela also read poems that showed their understanding of contemporary immigration issues within the context of the other two poems.

As the bell rang, students left the room talking about immigration. When lessons continue past the bell, it’s usually a good sign. One of my goals for this unit is to help students clarify their own thinking about these issues informed by their understanding of American history, as well as our other upcoming readings. I think we’re off to a good start.

As always, thanks for reading this. Your comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome.

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2 Responses to “The New/Newer/Newest Colossus”

  1. glenda says:

    Do you know the Rita Dove poem “Lady Liberty Among Us”? Your post made me think about it and the images of the statue that accompany it.
    Another poem popped into my mind, also, but for very different reasons: “Ozymandias.” Are our ideals just a giant colossus in ruin?
    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading about your lesson and getting the new resources.


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