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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Words and Deeds in American History
Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy. Watercolor, George West

[Detail] Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy

Words and Deeds in American History provides a personal glimpse through letters, art, and literature into the lives of many influential writers and artists, including Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Langston Hughes, and Helen Keller. Through its thematic group Arts and Literature, this collection provides an excellent springboard for language arts activities. These materials can lead to rich reading and writing experiences steeped in American history.

1) Literature

To understand the creativity of Helen Keller, you can help students understand what it means to be both deaf and blind. Hide an object in a cardboard box with a hole cut in it. Have students feel the object without looking at it, and then write a description of the object. Reveal the object and have students compare the object with their written description. Then, read aloud "Autumn", a poem by Helen Keller written in 1893. How do you think a person who was deaf and blind could write a visually descriptive poem like this? Research Hellen Keller with other resources.

[Note: Students might refer to the Web sites such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind's The Life of Helen Keller and Helen Keller International's About Helen Keller.]

What is the background of Walt Whitman's famous poem "O Captain, My Captain." Recite the poem aloud to the class. Ask students to search the Selected Civil War Photographs collection for images of Lincoln's funeral, and then compare those images with the imagery in the poem. Discuss questions such as:

  • Why do you think Whitman calls Lincoln his "Captain?"
  • What does the ship in the poem represent?
  • What does Whitman mean by, 'The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done?"

Have students write a poem about a loss in their lives. Conclude by having students revise the poem after several days.

2) Theater

Ask students to read the essay and the document for Clare Boothe Luce's scene description of her play The Women, ca. 1936. Once students have read the scene description, ask them questions such as:

  • Why is the cosmetics counter an effective setting for a meeting of these rival women?
  • Would the setting work for a play set in today's times? Why? Why not?
  • What other settings would work today?

Have students write and illustrate a scene description for the meeting of two rivals. The description should include a brief explanation of the cause of the rivalry and a short summary of why the setting will effectively set off the rivalry.

For background information, research the interesting life of playwright, Congresswoman, journalist, ambassador, and publisher Clare Boothe Luce. To learn about Luce's experiences as a photojournalist during World War II, consult the Library of Congress special exhibit Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II. Search Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964 for portraits of Luce.