CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS (Front Street, 2001)
Written by Marilyn Nelson
IRA’s theme for International Literacy Day 2013 was “Invent Your Future.” (See the following website for more information: http://www.cloudy-movie.com/literacy/.) The idea of “inventing your future” made me think immediately of George Washington Carver and Marilyn Nelson’s gorgeous verse biography of him and his life. The combination of Nelson’s poetic skills and Carver’s amazing life resulted in a magical work. CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS received numerous awards, including being named a Newbery Honor book, a Coretta Scott King Honor book, and a National Book Award finalist.
Nelson provides an arcing, yet detailed, look into Caver’s life from the beginning to the end. She has a fine eye for including both the daily details and many accomplishments that show Carver in all his aspects. Too many times biographies seek to put the subject on a pedestal, but the truly great ones reveal the subject as a person, and an intricate one at that. Nelson integrates details about Carver’s life as a scholar, an inventor, an explorer, a devoted religious man, and a mentor. Across these numerous roles Nelson makes it clear that Carver brought a passion to all his tasks and interests.
Throughout the text Nelson reveals many of the inventions that can be credited to Carver. Perhaps he is best remembered for his work with peanuts, but he was also a wizard with sweet potatoes and tomatoes as well. Carver’s knowledge of the natural world and plants allowed him to create a blue pigment that many had strived to create since the days of King Tut. This color surrounds us in our daily lives, but was only made possible by Carver’s knowledge, his curious mind and his unwillingness to give up on a project once he embarked on it. Nelson memorializes this discovery in her poem, “Egyptian Blue.”
Nelson’s book should be appreciated as the great literary accomplishment it is. But readers will also gain insight and appreciation of the humble George Washington Carver whose work and inventions go unnoticed in our everyday lives, but which indelibly changed our lives forever.
Cross-Curricular Connections: History/Social Studies, Science, Language Arts
Ideas for Classroom Use:
Patenting Peanut Products
It is thought that Carver created more than 300 products from/with peanuts. However, Carver never patented any of his processes or products, so it is difficult to accurately identify everything he should be credited with inventing.
This multi-step activity can be expanded or shortened based on your classroom needs. Initially students should conduct research into the peanut and peanut-based products attributed to Carver. You can challenge students to identify all 300+ products. To expand the activity students can identify modern day products that stem directly from Carver’s inventions. You can also send students to the grocery store in order to record surprising products that may contain peanuts or peanut by-products.
The next step in this activity would be to explore the patent process in your country. This process is often long and difficult. Obtain a copy of the patent application and have students fill it out on behalf of one of Carver’s inventions. Students should assume the identity of Carver as they complete this application.
To extend the activity students can speculate on why Carver may not have patented most of his products. Carver was known for his generosity and sought to serve the common good, as a further extension activity, students can write an essay regarding the pros and cons of patenting products. Students could consider whether or not patents are harmful to some members of the population, for example, medical devices or drugs that may be extremely expensive because of the patent or whether or not the inventor has the right to patent and protect his/her invention.
Throughout Nelson’s poetic text, she describes important items, activities or inventions in Carver’s life. For example, “Prayer of the Ivory-Handled Knife” tells of Carver finding an ivory-handled knife that he had dreamed of; he found it in a watermelon in the garden.
Assume the point of view of one of these objects, activities or inventions and write a poem about Carver from this perspective. Examples might include writing from the point of view of a piece of dirty laundry or the washboard as Carver takes in laundry to survive in Highland, Kansas (see Nelson’s poem, “Washboard Wizard.”) Another example can be found in Nelson’s “The Joy of Sewing,” which describes how Carver sewed and mended most of his own clothes, and made lace as well.
A Timeline of African American Achievements
George Washington Carver was a pioneering African American whose life and work paved the way for many African Americans that followed him. Carver was a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, another pioneering African American who is mentioned in several of Nelson’s poems about Carver.
In this activity, students will create a timeline of African American achievements. The timeline can start with Carver or before and ideally it should extend into the present day. The goal of this activity would be to recognize the power of one individual to influence the future and to change the lives of others.
Leo Tolstoy said, “To let oneself seem inferior to what one is is the supreme attribute of virtue.” Marilyn Nelson chose to put this quote, among others, at the beginning of CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS. In a five-paragraph essay students should discuss how this quote is relevant to George Washington Carver. Students should be encouraged to use examples from CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS as well as to conduct their own further research into Carver’s life.
Additional Resources and Activities:
George Washington Carver National Monument
This is a link to the National Park Service website of the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri. This site includes images from the Monument including the Carver family cemetery and statues of Carver found at the Monument. Additionally, there are links and resources for children and teachers focused around Carver’s life and accomplishments.
IN THE GARDEN WITH DR. CARVER by Susan Grigsby, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
Although this is a picture book intended for younger children, I am a firm believer in using picture books with all ages and for all subjects, and this is a beautiful picture book that explores some of Carver’s outreach work with rural farmers. The publisher, Albert Whitman & Company, has put together a comprehensive teaching guide for this text. And while the teaching guide is targeted towards younger readers, many of the ideas can be modified for older readers or can serve as inspiration for other activities.
Agricultural Awareness through Poetry
These lesson plans were designed by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom and feature poetry that ties into natural and agricultural themes. There is a poem about Carver, “Green-Thumb Boy” by Dr. L.H. Pammel, as well as a snippet of a poem from Nelson’s text.
BOSTON GLOBE-HORN BOOK Award Acceptance
This is a link to Marilyn Nelson’s BOSTON GLOBE-HORN BOOK acceptance speech for CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS. She explains what led her to write CARVER and a bit about her writing process. Additional information about Carver and his importance, as Nelson sees it, is also included.
A Poet for All: An Interview with Marilyn Nelson
Andrea Schmitz conducted an interview with Nelson and includes snippets here about Nelson’s writing process, including the depth of research she must conduct, especially with texts such as Carver.
Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac
The above link is to Anita Silvey’s entry about CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS by Marilyn Nelson. Silvey selected this book to highlight on August 6 as August is National Inventor’s Month. She provides a brief description of the book, some information on Carver and Nelson, and an excerpt from the text as well.
Aimee Rogers is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying children’s and adolescent literature. Prior to her return to school, Aimee taught high school students with special needs, in a wide variety of settings, for ten years. She misses working with adolescents but is developing a passion for working with undergraduate pre-service teachers. She has a growing interest in graphic novels for children and young adults and is making them the focus of her dissertation.
© 2013 Aimee Rogers. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.