Maya Angelou

This lesson focuses on questions of identity as students read and analyze Angelou’s inspirational poem “Still I Rise” and apply its message to their own lives. Students learn how Maya Angelou overcame hardship and discrimination to find her own voice and to influence others to believe in themselves and use their voices for positive change.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • examine how imagery can be used to represent ideas, themes, and periods of history.
  • find cultural relevance and text-to-self connections to the poem, “Still I Rise.”
  • reflect on resiliency in their lives, school, and community
  • determine the origins of their “voice” and consider how they would like to use it
Essential Questions
  • What factors influence the kind of person that an individual becomes?
  • Why do poets and authors use figurative language (such as metaphors and similes) in their writing?

Enduring Understandings

  • People are formed by their experiences and environment.
  • Experiences—including struggles and obstacles a person has had to confront—help determine the kind of individual they become.
  • Environment (such as family, friends, cultural identity, and gender) also plays an important role in a person’s development.
  • Writers use figurative language and imagery to make surprising connections, add depth to a literary piece, and to create a deeper, more meaningful experience for the reader.


adversity [ad-vur-sih-tee] (noun)  a state of continued difficulties

figurative [fig-yer-uh-tiv] (adjective) not literal; represented by a figure of speech

imagery [im-ij-ree] (noun)  words that create images in people’s minds

literal [lit-er-uhl] (adjective)  the actual meaning of a word


Suggested Procedure

1. Tell students that authors often use imagery to create comparisons between literal and figurative elements, add depth and understanding to a literary piece, and evoke a more meaningful experience for the reader. Give the class a brief introduction to Maya Angelou (see Lesson Overview, above), then explain that examining her masterful use of imagery throughout the poem “Still I Rise” can help them understand and interpret the poem’s theme and message. Before reading the poem, define or review definitions for the following elements of imagery: personification, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia and hyperbole. Definitions can be found here.

2. Have students read “Still I Rise” in its entirety. (Note: Either print the poem out or give the class access online.) Students working with the printed text can use a highlighter to identify examples of imagery in the poem.

3. Divide the class into small groups. Have each group select one of the poem’s stanzas to analyze. Using the Images of “Still I Rise” activity sheet, ask students to list each example of imagery in the stanza, the type of imagery used, and what they believe the element of imagery represents in the poem’s theme. For example, the sun—an element of nature that continues to rise despite any other circumstances—in stanza three might represent African Americans’ resilience in the face of racism and discrimination or Maya Angelou’s resiliency despite a difficult childhood. Tell students that when they are finished, they will present their group’s interpretation of their stanza to the rest of the class. Encourage other groups to add to the interpretation. Once all groups have presented, ask students to combine with another group and draw conclusions about how the imagery in the poem contributes to the poem’s overall message.

4. Explain to students that although we know the author of “Still I Rise” is Maya Angelou, the speaker, audience and topic of the poem are less clear. Tell them, “Readers are free to develop their own interpretations. Your interpretation may be dependent on your own cultural identity, experiences and knowledge, and it may be different than the interpretation of your classmates.” Explain that poems are often best interpreted by first reading them aloud. Ask students to pair up with a partner and take turns reading the poem aloud while a partner listens. Have them discuss the following questions: “What emotions do you hear in your partner’s interpretation? Did you read the poem in a similar manner or differently?”

Ask students to annotate the poem with their partner using the following questions:

  • Who do you think the speaker/narrator of the poem is? Is it a person? A cultural group? Highlight or underline words or phrases that help you identify the speaker/narrator.
  • How does the speaker/narrator seem to feel about herself? Draw a face that represents that emotion (e.g., a smiley face, sad face or angry face) next to a word phrase that exhibits it. Have you ever felt that way about yourself? If so, share with your partner what makes you feel that way.
  • To whom do you think the poem is directed? Highlight or underline words and phrases that support your answers and share them with your partner.
  • What message is the writer trying to give to the person or group to which she is writing? Have you ever had to give a similar message to someone? If so, when?
  • What do you believe the poem’s overall theme is? Examples include hopelessness, strength, resiliency, spirit and anger. Write the theme you have identified at the top of the poem. Then draw an arrow to a word or phrase from the poem that supports that theme.
  • Do you see this poem in a historical context? If so, explain that context to your partner.
  • Finally, consider and share with your partner how your own knowledge, experiences and cultural identity influence the way you interpret the poem. Have you interpreted it differently than your partner?

5. After students have annotated the text, conduct a class discussion. Divide into two groups. Set up the room with two concentric circles of chairs—one large circle of chairs and a second, larger circle of chairs outside of it. One group will sit in the inner circle and one group will sit in the outer circle. Have each student bring a copy of the poem. Ask a question of those students in the inner circle only. Those in the outer circle will observe the discussion and be prepared to summarize what they have heard. Tell students to take a few minutes to think about their answer and that they may refer to notes from the previous activity. Go around the circle or use a talking piece, letting each person answer the question. After everyone has had a chance to answer, tell students that they can respond to what has been said. If a student disagrees with someone’s answer, this is his or her chance to explain. Suggest that students might want to connect to something in their own experience or raise a related question.

Have the inner circle group answer the first two questions and then ask the outer circle group to summarize what they heard. Then ask groups to switch and the outer circle group should become the inner circle group and answer the third and fourth questions. Follow this procedure for these four questions:

  • In what way(s) do you personally connect with this poem?
  • To what “gifts that my ancestors gave” is the author referring? What gifts were you given from ancestors or people in your cultural group who came before you?
  • Which groups, either in society or at your school, are “shot with words,” “cut with eyes” or “killed with hatefulness?” How is this received? What can be done to change it?
  • You are part of many different groups, such as your family, your cultural group, your religious group and your gender group. Share an example of how you have faced adversity as part of one of these groups and if/how you have risen up against it.

Extension Activity

Invite students to learn more about Angelou’s difficult early life and her subsequent accomplishments. You can share this information: “Maya Angelou is one of the most influential voices of our time. However, she had a turbulent childhood. After her parents’ divorce, she was sent to live with her grandmother in racially divided Stamps, Arkansas, where she experienced the brutality of racial discrimination. She also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African-American family, community and culture. After being sent back to live with her mother, she was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s friend. She confided the abuse to her brother, leading to the rapist’s arrest. Upon getting out of jail, the rapist was killed, many believe by Maya’s uncles. She believed her voice killed him since she told her brother of the crime. Subsequently she went mute for nearly six years. She was then sent back to live with her grandmother where a teacher helped her regain her voice, her confidence, and her pride. She went on to become an author, actress, journalist, civil rights worker, and teacher, using her voice for positive change.”

Ask students to think about the following questions: “From where does your voice come: your family, your culture, your beliefs, your friends, your experiences? For what would you like to use your voice, now and in the future?” Then invite students to write a letter, poem, blog, song or journal entry that answers those questions.

Do Something

Work with your school counselor and other stakeholders to champion and create a “Still I Rise” club or group at your school dedicated to helping students find their voices and overcome adversity. The club could simply be a place for students to find resources or it could be a more complex, peer-to-peer support network. (Note: Some schools may only authorize clubs that are connected to a national organization, e.g., Amnesty International.)


Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.2, R.3, R.4, R.5, R.6, W.4, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.4, L.5, L.6

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