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”
Learning Activity #2: A “Lift Off” Pastiche
Additional Connections to Advanced Language & Literature: This 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.
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? —
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.
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” PASTICHE
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:
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…”
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…”
Then, briefly return to the past challenges now resolved so as to say they will never be forgotten”
Finally, return to the future with your reader by your side and close with a powerful action.
“Together, we can… [Lift Off]”
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