Middle School And High School
By Justin Sybenga
We all have beliefs and values that shape who we are and how we act, whether they are intentionally developed and clearly articulated or beneath the surface of our awareness. These beliefs and values are often deeply influenced by our own personal experiences, which in turn, are influenced by broader events happening in the place and time we live.
In this lesson, students will use the lens of Claribel Alegria’s poem “Personal Creed” to gain understanding of how the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992) shaped the experience and perspective of this accomplished poet and an entire generation of Salvadorans. Students will understand how Alegria both incorporated and challenged the religious beliefs of her contemporaries in a statement of her own convictions by imitating elements of the Apostle’s Creed. Finally students will be invited to work on a personal creed for themselves that reflects their own life story, imitating elements of a well-known religious or national text.
- What is your personal creed and how does it fit with the beliefs of your community?
- Students will be able to explain how the history of the civil war in El Salvador impacted the beliefs and values of one of the country’s most celebrated poets
- Students will be able to analyze how the poet parodies the Apostles Creed to distinguish her beliefs from orthodox Christian beliefs
- Students will be able to parody a well-known religious or patriotic text to express their own beliefs
Time and Materials
- Two class periods, including time for student writing
- Copies of poem and student handouts (provided)
- Reading on history of civil war in El Salvador and/or clip from documentary Harvest of Empire (1:10:40 - 1:16:54)
- Post the definition of a creed on the board: A creed is a statement of the basic beliefs that guides how you live your life. Give students some time to journal about the beliefs and values that govern their lives. What is their personal creed? When students are finished journaling, invite them to share with a shoulder partner. If you’d like, partners can identify the line they like best in their peers’ writing and share out the line with the class.
- Read “Personal Creed” aloud to the class. After they’ve experienced a dramatic reading of the poem, ask students to jot down notes in the margin using the “Notice, Think, Wonder” protocol: What do you notice about the poem? What do you think a line or phrase means? What details or lines do you wonder about? Before class, teachers should look up phrases in the poem to prepare for possible student questions about Pontius Pilate, Media Luna, blue cows of Chagall, cronopios, and Squadrons of Death.
- Students will understand the poet’s creed more deeply if they have a clear understanding of the historical events that shaped her beliefs. Give students a brief history of the civil war in El Salvador (1980-1992) from the Center for Justice and Accountability to read in small groups. Alternatively, you could show a clip from the documentary Harvest of Empire (1:10:40 - 1:16:54). Warning, there are graphic images of violence in the film clip. Whether students read the history or view the film excerpt, they should use the poem and the historical background to discuss the following questions in small groups and be ready to report out to the class:
- What does the poet Alegria believe and what does she value?
- How does the history of El Salvador affect Alegria’s beliefs?
- How might you expect Alegria to live out her beliefs?
- Ask students if “Personal Creed” sound familiar to any of them or if it reminds them of any texts that they’ve heard before. Tell students that the poet is using a form of satire called parody, mimicking the style of the Apostle’s Creed and providing a social commentary or critique at the same time. It may be helpful to share with students an example or two of parody to illustrate the concept for them. Teachers should choose from the many parodies for ads or for popular songs that are readily available, selecting examples that will make the concept of parody vivid for students.
- Provide students some brief background information about the origins of the Apostle’s Creed, which Christian denominations use it, and how they use it. Then invite students to work in partners or groups of three to conduct a side-by-side text comparison between “Personal Creed” and “The Apostles Creed” using the handout provided. Students should use stickie notes to compare similarities and contrast differences between the texts. On the top half of the sticky, students should explain the similarity or difference. On the bottom half of the sticky, students should explain what is revealed about Alegria’s beliefs. See example below:
One title uses the term “Personal” meaning unique to the individual while the other title uses the word “Apostles” showing it is a communal belief based on the lives of historical figures..
Alegria doesn’t follow strictly traditional beliefs; rather, her beliefs are informed by the personal experiences she has lived through in El Salvador
- Discuss the similarities and differences between the two texts as a whole class. The teacher should encourage students to think about how Alegria’s beliefs diverge from orthodox Christian beliefs and how the history of her country may have impacted her beliefs.
- Students will write a poem that mimics a well-known religious or patriotic text or a popular song or poem lyric, inspired by Alegria’s poem “Personal Creed.” This assignment will allow students an opportunity to offer social commentary on the beliefs expressed in the original text and express their deeply held convictions. The teacher should start by reviewing the purpose, assignment requirements, and writing process using the My Own Personal Creed: A Style Imitation Exercise assignment sheet. Then, the teacher could lead a brainstorming session of possible well known religious or patriotic texts that students could imitate. Some students will enjoy the freedom of selecting a famous statement of values or beliefs for themselves and independently crafting their own style imitation. Others will have a more difficult time getting started and will benefit from using one of the templates for the Pledge of Allegiance, The Star-Spangled Banner, and the Declaration of Independence, which are provided. Students may find it helpful to complete a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between the beliefs and values expressed in the text they’ve selected and their own. Students will then write a draft of their own “pledge,” “anthem,” or “declaration” or another text they’ve chosen to imitate. Depending on student engagement and teacher objectives, students could be given an opportunity for peer feedback and revision.