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Teaching "Lift Off" by Donovan Livingston

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Classroom Compass Lesson Plan for “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston

By David Hillis

Curriculum Connection: Advanced Language & Literature Ch. 5 - The Individual in the Classroom

Rationale: In “Lift Off,” a spoken word piece by Donovan Livingston, the writer delivers an inspiring speech about the promises and lies of public education as a tool for social mobility.  The poem presents an emotional appeal for student centered education and reveals the contradictions of educational reforms like the common core that put standardization over the needs of the individual to realize their own unique genius. 

Learning Activity #1: Close Reading “Lift Off”

  1. First, watch the video with the students (see the link below).  Advise them to take the poem in as if they were sitting as a student at commencement for Harvard.  Consider playing this up a bit with some guided visualization.
  2. Solicit gut responses.
  3. Checking for Understanding: In “Lift Off,” Livingston identifies a number of ways individuals struggle with to receive the kind of education that leads to real opportunities in life.  Livingston identifies historical barriers to education, personal barriers, and national policy barriers to education.  Work as a class or in small groups to create a comprehensive list of these barriers.
    1. An example of an historical barriers: In 1848, Blacks could be killed if found reading or writing or trying read and write. (Lines 4 - 5)
    2. An example of a personal barrier:  In lines 10 - 16, he explains that he has been made to feel like a “Token” or “Quota” in the name of “Diversity. Inclusion.”  Rather than a man of genius. Also, prior to the poem, he refers to an English teacher who tried to silence him at his High School graduation.
    3. An example of policy barrier: In lines 56-57, he suggests that standardized assessments and the common core have us enslaved to systems that reproduce the economic and social inequalities that can be traced back to the plantation system--see also line 10.
  4. 4.    Checking for Understanding: What are the forces that inspired Livingston to break through this barriers?
  5. 5.    Developing an Interpretation:  Who is Livingston writing for? How do you know?  Is there a primary audience? What is he advocating for?  This can be done through writing and discussion.
  6. 6.    Analyzing Style: Livingston makes many allusions in this poem.  This is appropriate because the poem ties a personal experience to an historical and cultural narrative. Help your students discover this connection between form and purpose by asking them look-up all of the bold-faced allusions in the text included below.  As a class, share what you all found and think about why he makes these allusions.  Do they reveal patterns to us?  (Struggle for Freedom, Civil Rights, Equality / Pedagogy / Astrological Phenomenon). What is Livingston connecting his story to and why? What connections should be made between these three threads? Teach allusion if they do not already know that term.
  7. Analyzing Style: Livingston punctuates his remarks with a short and powerful phrase: “Lift Off.”  How does this phrase get its power?  (This phrase accumulates its power through the weaving of references seen in step 5).
  8. Making Connections: Ask students to identify connections they see to the texts you’ve studied in Chapter 5.  How would the writers from this chapter respond to this poem?  Students might write as those writers using a sentence frame like this:  Livingston says [Insert quote from “Lift Off”] and this is what I was writing about when I wrote [article title] + [quote from that article].

Learning Activity #2: A “Lift Off” Pastiche

  1. TASK: Imagine you are giving the commencement address at your own graduation.  Consider the challenges you have faced in school and those who have inspired you to move beyond those challenges.
  2. Pre-Writing: Guide students through the listing of challenges and moments of inspiration.  Do so by modeling your own brainstorming and soliciting examples from students.
  3. Point out that Livingston moves through several phases as he connects his personal story to the past (“I stand here, a manifestation of…” , his personal past (“I was”), the future “I see”, back to a past that has ended “I’ve been” and then on to the future with a command - “Together, we can… Lift off.”  Teach this to your students and have them follow the structure.  For those students who have not struggled in school, the same prompt may be applied to another institution where they have struggled.  If they still feel no resonance with the prompt, invite them to write from the perspective of one of the writers/characters from chapter 5 about their struggles with institutional barriers.

Additional Connections to Advanced Language & LiteratureThis writing activity can be used as an opening activity to help students connect to the topic, or as a closing activity to help students solidify their views on the topics discussed.  This can be a companion to “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” but it may also be a way of framing end of unit activity Making Connections #3 that looks at the opposing perspectives on compulsory education.

Materials Needed:


Lift Off by Donovan Livingston

Originally delivered at Harvard Commencement 2016

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin,

Is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.” – Horace Mann, 1848.

At the time of his remarks I couldn’t read — couldn’t write.                                     

Any attempt to do so, punishable by death.

For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.                                                                5

Yet somehow, we’ve never questioned the keeper of the keys —

The guardians of information.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen more dividing and conquering

In this order of operations — a heinous miscalculation of reality.

For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time.                                        10

How many times must we be made to feel like quotas —

Like tokens in coined phrases? —

“Diversity. Inclusion”

There are days I feel like one, like only —

A lonely blossom in a briar patch of broken promises.                                                                                                15

But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice.

  1. Disruptive. Talkative. A distraction.

With a passion that transcends the confines of my consciousness —

Beyond your curriculum, beyond your standards.

I stand here, a manifestation of love and pain,                                                                                                            20

With veins pumping revolution.

I am the strange fruit that grew too ripe for the poplar tree.

I am a DREAM Act, Dream Deferred incarnate.

I am a movement – an amalgam of memories America would care to forget

My past, alone won’t allow me to sit still.                                                                                                       25

So my body, like the mind

Cannot be contained.

As educators, rather than raising your voices

Over the rustling of our chains,

Take them off. Un-cuff us.                                                                                                                                               30

Unencumbered by the lumbering weight

Of poverty and privilege,

Policy and ignorance.

I was in the 7th grade, when Ms. Parker told me,

“Donovan, we can put your excess energy to good use!”                                                                           35

And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.

She gave me a stage. A platform.

She told me that our stories are ladders

That make it easier for us to touch the stars.

So climb and grab them.                                                                                                                                    40

Keep climbing. Grab them.

Spill your emotions in the big dipper and pour out your soul.

Light up the world with your luminous allure.

To educate requires Galileo-like patience.

Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations.                                 45

If you take the time to connect the dots,

You can plot the true shape of their genius —

Shining in their darkest hour.

I look each of my students in the eyes,

And see the same light that aligned Orion’s Belt                                                                                         50

And the pyramids of Giza.

I see the same twinkle

That guided Harriet to freedom.

I see them. Beneath their masks and mischief,

Exists an authentic frustration;                                                                                                                                        55

An enslavement to your standardized assessments.

At the core, none of us were meant to be common.

We were born to be comets,

Darting across space and time —

Leaving our mark as we crash into everything.                                                                                                             60

A crater is a reminder that something amazing happened here —

An indelible impact that shook up the world.

Are we not astronomers — looking for the next shooting star?

I teach in hopes of turning content, into rocket ships —

Tribulations into telescopes,                                                                                                                                              65

So a child can see their potential from right where they stand.

An injustice is telling them they are stars

Without acknowledging night that surrounds them.

Injustice is telling them education is the key

While you continue to change the locks.                                                                                                        70

Education is no equalizer —

Rather, it is the sleep that precedes the American Dream.

So wake up — wake up! Lift your voices

Until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky.

Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.                                                                   75

I’ve been a Black hole in the classroom for far too long;

Absorbing everything, without allowing my light escape.

But those days are done. I belong among the stars.

And so do you. And so do they.

Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness                                                                                                              80

For generations to come.

No, sky is not the limit. It is only the beginning.

Lift off.



A PASTICHE is an an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period. It is done in celebration of that work and not as a parody.  Practicing the pastiche helps us identify structural elements in a text as well as rhetorical strategies that are much more universal.

Donovan Livingston’s “Lift Off” powerfully connects a personal story to an historical and cultural narrative.  Through a masterful weaving a three threads: racial oppression, education, and astrology, he shows us what was, what is, and what could be--imply that the distant stars are not even the limit.  As all institutions are products of the imagination, he calls us (students and educators) to reimagine the education system.

Your task is to write a poem that builds from his structure. Start by imagining institutions that you would like to see reformed.  Put education at the top of that list:

  1. 1. Education
  2. 2.
  3. 3.

Choose one, if you choose Education.  Imagine you have been asked to perform this poem at commencement for your school.

Now list the barriers you or people you know have faced in this institution.

Now list the ways you or people you know have been inspired to push past these barriers.

Now, begin the poem by using this fundamental approach, modifying and embellishing as you see fit.

Connect your personal struggle to an historical struggle:

“I stand here, a manifestation of…”

“I am...

Then, connect this to your personal inspiration:

            “I was in [the 7th grade] when…”

Then, look to the future for the challenges and inspiration and success:

            “Today, when I look…”

            “I see…”


Then, briefly return to the past challenges now resolved so as to say they will never be forgotten”

            “I’ve been…

Finally, return to the future with your reader by your side and close with a powerful action.

            “Together, we can… [Lift Off]”