Why Does The Caged Bird Sing?

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

By: Beresford , Dewhurst and Mendez


dunbar alicia

Music and poetry are very closely related. Poetry can serve as the voice to the melody, giving the words a different effect on the audience. The past and present are also closely linked. In many ways the past is the foundation for what occurs in the present.

  • How are Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou and Alicia Keys linked?
  • How have they influenced each other's work?
  • What role does rhyme play in lyrical poetry?
  • Does the human desire to be free change over time? Explain.

Listen to a sample of Alicia Keys' song: Caged Bird.

Read the lyrics to Alicia's song as we listen to the entire song in class.

Listen to Buck Shot Le Fonque's version of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," in class as we read her poem together.

Read Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem: Sympathy

  • What symbol remains constant throughout the writing of all three artists?
  • Are you a caged bird?


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. Remember, the more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

The goal for this activity is to have students link the past with the present by comparing and contrasting the works of three different artists. Upon completion of this project, students will be encouraged to examine their own life struggles and come to their own definition of freedom. The following standards are met in completion with this project: 10th grade Literary Response and Analysis, 3.5 and 3.12 and Speaking Applications, 2.0.

Just as Maya Angelou was influenced by Dunbar and Alicia Keys was influenced by Angelou, students should reflect on who has influenced their lives and how they've been affected by such experiences.
  1. What is the historical significance of each piece?
  2. What underlying themes are constant throughout each piece?
  3. Which symbols appear in the works of all three artists?

Having read the works of Dunbar and Angelou as well as having listened to Keys' song "Caged Bird", students may have further questions that delve more specifically into the topics posed by the artists.

  1. How is African-American history tracked throughout the works?
  2. What struggles and victories does each artist
  3. What does a caged bird represent?How does each artist identify with the caged bird?
  4. Compare and contrast the different themes prevalent in each work.


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

In order for students to compare/contrast three works and provide a strong analysis of how each work is related to the themes and issues of its time, students will need to search for supporting evidence from the following:

  • biographies
  • poem reviews
  • literary analysis of poems

Defining Important Terms

Glossary for Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy:"

*upland - the higher parts of a region
*slopes - the land that forms an incline
*opes - opens
*chalice - a cup or goblet
*fain - happily, gladly
*bough - a large tree branch
*keener - a sharp cutting edge or point

Investigation Tool(s)

Students will use Inspiration to create a comparison web that will guide students' interpretations of similarities and differences between the three works.

Manipulating Data

Interpretations on the comparison web will change as new information is discovered.

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data may be necessary.

Websites for Paul Laurence Dunbar's Biography:

Websites for Reviews on Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Sympathy":

Websites for Maya Angelou's Biography:

Websites for Comparisons of poetry by Dunbar and Angelou:

Websites for Alicia Keys' Biography:


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

The following comparison web is an example of questions and answers the students should address:


No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

From their inquiry, students will choose from the following three options to present to the class on "Open Mic Night." All three options must include a connection with one of the three artists. The final piece must also include at least two themes prevalent in the works read and relate them to present-day issues.

Open Mic Night at Teacher's class:

  • Option 1 - write an original poem using the style of Dunbar, Angelou or Keys incorporating the requirements listed above.
  • Option 2 - same as above, but also incorporating instrumental music as poem is read.
  • Option 3 - create an original song and lyrics and present to class

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

  • What effects has each artists' work had on society?
  • Have the artists' works changed perspectives on racial relationships?
  • What are significant aspects about each artist's life, career, and/or character?
  • What have you learned from the lives and works of the artists that has "opened your eyes"?
  • How has this new knowledge/perspective affected you, changed who you are, or what you want to become?