Teach This: “The Hill We Climb” and the 2021 Inauguration

Use Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” to talk with students about creative expression as a commentary on democracy.
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Photography by JP Yim/Getty Images

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” written for the 2021 inauguration, presents a great opportunity for educators and students to discuss the ways creative expression can help us think about the meaning of democracy.

A note on teaching through a pandemic:

We recognize that not all educators will be sharing physical or virtual space with students this school year. Because of that, we’ve tried to design these discussion guides in ways that can easily work across classes, whether you’re meeting face-to-face, in a virtual classroom or through another remote learning model. We’re so grateful to you and all the educators doing extraordinary work in these extraordinary times.

Here’s how you might start:

1. Check Students’ Previous Knowledge

Start the conversation by asking what students would expect to hear from poems delivered during presidential inaugurations, the first of which was performed in 1961.

Ask them to consider why performances of poetry were incorporated into inauguration ceremonies in the 20th century. Ask them to consider what might influence a president’s choice of poem or poet

2. Read Together and Clarify Understanding

Have students read (or watch) Amanda Gorman’s poem.

If students are working asynchronously, you may want to provide these questions to help them focus their learning as they read. If you’re meeting with students, try having them work individually, in pairs or in a group to answer a few text-dependent questions in their own words. For example: 

  • What is the significance of the poem’s title? What might the “hill” signify in our democracy? Why?
  • What do you think is meant by the phrase “quiet isn’t always peace”? If you had to restate this idea in your own words, how would you say this? Can you think of a time when things have been quiet but not peaceful?
  • Gorman writes that “the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice.” What do you think this line means? Do you agree? Why or Why not?
  • Look for the moment where Gorman describes herself in the poem. How does she describe herself? Which of her own identities does she name? Why do you think she chooses to name these identities in this poem about American democracy?
  • How does Gorman describe what “being American” is or isn’t? Why do you think she describes it in this way? What, if anything, might you change or add to her description?

3. Share Necessary Background

Provide additional resources for students to better understand the role of creative expression and democracy. Here are a few resources you might try. 

  • Have students read “Art as Resistance, Part 1” and “Art as Resistance, Part 2” to identify some of the ways creative work can help resist injustice. 
  • Have students read the poems “Harlem” and “I, Too” by Langston Hughes and note any similarities to Amanda Gorman’s poem. Do any common themes arise? What are your thoughts and feelings after reading Hughes’ work?
  • Have students read the poem “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander and note any similarities to Gorman’s poem. Do any common themes arise? What are your thoughts and feelings after reading Alexander’s work?
  • Have students read the poem “In This Place (An American Lyric),” another poem by Amanda Gorman, and note any similarities to “The Hill We Climb.” Do any common themes arise? What are your thought and feelings after reading Gorman’s earlier poem? 

4. Talk Together 

Guide students in a discussion about creative work as commentary on democracy. Consider beginning with the following questions: 

  • What thoughts come to your mind when you read “The Hill We Climb”? 
  • Why do you think the author chose to write this poem for the inauguration? How did this poem affect you personally? Select one or two lines that stood out to you and explain your choices.  
  • After reading the poems by Hughes, Alexander and Gorman, why do you think creative expression might help us think about democracy in the United States?