Marilyn Nelson's "My Seneca Village" | A Lesson Plan and Discussion Guide

In a series of stunning poems, Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards honoree Marilyn Nelson introduces readers to My Seneca Village, a multiethnic 19th-century community that thrived on the edge of what today is New York City’s Central Park
my seneca villageIn a series of stunning poems, Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards honoree Marilyn Nelson, introduces readers to My Seneca Village (namelos, 2015; Gr 5 Up), a 19th-century community that thrived on the edge of what today is New York City’s Central Park. Combing through census records, the poet imagines the lives of some of the individuals she found listed as living in this multiethnic village that included African American landowners, German and Irish immigrants, and possibly Native Americans. From a wedding announcement to scenes of a child pondering freedom and race to a priest comforting a mixed-race couple who have lost a child, Nelson creates a poignant portrait of a community that was displaced by the rule of eminent domain.-dg    Teaching note: This guide is aligned with the Common Core State Standards for Reading (Literature), Speaking and Listening, and Writing.  As students answer each question please encourage them to support their claims with textual evidence. Activating Background
  1. Read the introduction section of the text, Welcome to My Seneca Village. Based on the information provided, what do you think the poems and stories will convey about Seneca Village? Why? Make 2-3 predictions that are supported by evidence from the text. (Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details: RL.6.1, R.L., 7.1)
    1. Have you observed a community change through construction and/or demolition? Are these changes positive or negative? Support your response with details.
    2. What was happening to African Americans, Irish immigrants, and German immigrants in the United States between 1825 and 1857? Create a timeline of important events that occurred between those dates. In your opinion, how could those events impact the people living in the Seneca Village community?
    3. As you read the book, use the graphic organizer format below to track key details (e.g., job, family, actions) and emotions (e.g., response to events) expressed by community members from the book.
MySenecaVillage_diagram Guiding Questions
  1. On page2, the author begins with a paragraph about Broadway and then includes a poem titled, “Land Owner.” Why do you believe Nelson included this information at the beginning of the book? Why is it important? How does the combination of a story paragraph and poem support the reader’s understanding?  After reading the story paragraph and poem what imagery is conveyed? What is the key message? Support your response with examples from the text. (Reading: Craft and Structure: R.L. 6.5, R.L. 7.5)
  2. As the book progresses the author introduces a third text format, italicized facts. On page 16, the “Gradual Emancipation” section, the three formats are a story paragraph, poem, and italicized fact.  How does each text type enhance the reader’s understanding of the topic? What significant details are provided by each text type?  (Reading: Craft and Structure: R.L. 6.5, R.L. 7.5)
    1. Locate another section of the book that presents information using three text types (i.e., story paragraph, poem, and fact) and explain how the information is connected.
  3. Theatre is discussed through poetry in the story. How do the events revealed in “The Park Theatre” and “The Shakespeare Riot” build upon one another?  How do the characters respond to issues that arise throughout the poems? Support your response with evidence from the text. (Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details: RL.6.3, R.L. 7.3)
  4. Look at the poems, “Land Owner”, “ 15¢ Futures”, “Tub Men,” and “Professor Hesser, Music Lessons.” What types of jobs did community members obtain to buy and keep their land? What do these jobs suggest about the individuals? What do the professions highlight about the community? Consider the time period, what other jobs might have community members held?  What perspective does each man have about his job and/or the way he is treated within society?  Incorporate details from the text in your answer.  (Reading: Craft and Structure: R.L. 6.6, R.L. 7.6)
  5. Review the two addresses included in the book, each is a statement from an important historical leader. Specifically, the addresses are by Mrs. Maria W. Steward (p. 41) and Frederick Douglass (p.55).  What is the central message of each address? Why are these addresses important to members of the Seneca Village community? Provide a summary of the theme in your own words; be sure to incorporate details from the story. (Reading Key Ideas and Details: RL.6.2, R.L., 7.2)
  6. What is the Potatoe Famine? In the poems “Counting Blessings” and “Sisters of Charity” what does the author highlight about Irish Immigrants? How are they treated within the community? How are they treated outside of the community?  Provide evidence from the text. (Reading Key Ideas and Details: RL.6.1, R.L. 7.1)
    1. Consider the poem “Little Box” on page 57, which talks about a tragedy faced by an Irish woman and African American man. What challenges might an interracial couple have encountered inside and outside of the community during the early-mid 1800s?
  7. In the text we learn about the adult lives of three community members who were introduced as children, Charlotte Thompson, Freddy Riddles, and Matilda Polk. Why do you believe the author included this information? How are the perspectives and experiences of the characters similar? How do their points of view differ? What changes in their lives from childhood to adulthood? (Reading Literature: Craft and Structure: RL.6.6, R.L., 7.6)
  8. Examine the poems “Conductor and Miracle in the Collection Plate.” What information is conveyed about slavery and assisting slaves?  How are the poems similar? What new events are revealed in each poem? How do these events contribute or build upon the central theme of the story? (Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details: RL.6.3, R.L., 7.3)
  9. Examine the final poem titled “Uncle Epiphany.”What types of patterns are included in the introduction of the poem? Why are the patterns significant? Explain the literal and/or figurative meaning of the following terms from the poem, “horizon,” “infinite possibility,” “Epiphanies,” and “ever-changing panorama.”  How does each word or phrase impact the tone of the poem? What message is conveyed in the poem? (Reading: Craft and Structure: R.L. 6.4, 7.4)
    1. Select your favorite poem from the story and analyze the structure of the poem. What style of poetry is used? What patterns can you find in the poem? How do the patterns, word choice, and verses enhance the meaning and/or messages conveyed in the poem?
  10. Several Laws that impacted members of the Seneca Village community are referenced throughout the story. Explain the following laws: (Reading Literature: Craft and Structure: RL.6.5, R.L. 7.5)
    1. The New York State Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery: What is the purpose of this law? How does this law impact Freddy and other children in the community? Why is this law important? What does it mean to be, free but not free (p. 17)?
    2. Law of Eminent Domain: What does this law require? How is it received by the community? “The Law of Eminent Domain” poem begins with the following letter excerpt from “Jupiter Hesser”, A very great number of poor families who worked a number of years on these lits… will be entirely ruined when they must give up their cultivated land and move away… Please to have mercy on the poor (p.81). Why is this excerpt important? What message does it convey about the” Law of Eminent Domain”? Provide evidence from the text to support your response.
Geographical Connections: Visit the New York Historical Society’s Website to examine the map of Seneca Village (  Think about how Nelson describes Seneca Village, “… there were 264 individuals living there. There were three churches. There was a school.  There were several cemeteries. There were businesses. There were homes, with years and gardens.  There was an apple orchard.  There were families.  There were friends.  There was happiness.  There was grief” (p. viii). Write a summary that addresses the following questions: Which parts of Seneca Village are evident on the map? In order to turn Seneca Village into Central Park, what needed to be built?  What needed to be demolished? How did the change from Seneca Village to Central Park impact the residents? Your summary should include relevant facts, important details, quotations, or examples related to the text. (Writing: Text Types and Purposes: W.6.2, W. 7.2) Text-Text Connection: Read the book, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park by Roy Rosenzweig.  Which details are the same as those shared in My Seneca Village? What new details do you learn in the historical account? After reading Rosenzweig’s book, create a written report that includes important facts, details, and examples about the events that occurred between 1825 and 1857 in Seneca Village.  Your report should also include a derailed timeline that illustrates the events discussed in your report (Reading Literature: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: RL.6.9, R.L., 7.9) Writing Connection: Read the final section of the text, “About the Poems.”  Based on Nelson’s explanations, list and define the types of poems included throughout the book.  Next, create a new entry about one of the characters in the story that incorporates a poem and written paragraph.  The poem should be aligned to one of the poetry styles described by the author.  Your final piece should present new information about the character in two formats (i.e., written paragraph and poem).  The poem should also incorporate sensory language, dialogue, transition language, events, and descriptions that develop the character. (Writing: Text Types and Purposes: W.6.3, W. 7.3)
  1. Read one poem in the style intended by the author. For instance, the poem “Counting Blessings” is supposed to sound like an Irish jig when read aloud.  After reading the poem aloud, explain the overall tone, and summarize the key message conveyed in the poem. (Reading Literature: Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: RL.6.10, R.L., 7.10).
Speaking and Listening Connection The abolitionist movement is highlighted in the poem “Wild Night”.  Research the abolitionist movement in NY.  Why is the abolitionist movement significant to the members of the Seneca Village community?  How did it impact all people living in NY? How may it have impacted people in Seneca Village? Create a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation that emphasizes the important events of the abolitionist movement in NY, key individuals, involvement of African Americans, successes, and challenges of the movement. (Speaking and Listening:  Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: W.6.5, W. 7.5) About the Co-Author of the Article Dawn Jacobs Martin has spent her career supporting students with disabilities through various roles as a practitioner, researcher, Special Education Director, and Assistant Professor.  She continues to improve the academic outcomes for students through teacher development, instructional design, and research in the areas of response to intervention, social support, and parent involvement.  Feel free to contact her with questions at
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Bridget Casey

Marilyn Nelson's book, My Seneca Village, is an important and beautiful book. Through her moving poems, readers learn about the people whose sacrifices have almost been forgotten in the history of Central Park and NYC.

Posted : Nov 21, 2015 06:35



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