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Two or Three Things from the Past: Sample Lesson Plan

This lesson plan's activities are based on Teaching Idea #1 for the poem Two or Three Things from the Past: "Poetry vs. Propaganda." The format is based on that of the lesson plans on the website Engage NY.

Poetry vs. Propaganda

Length: 2 to 3 45-minute class sessions

Grade Levels: 11-12

Subject: ELA

Targeted Reading Standards: Literature 11-12.1, 11-12.6; Informational Texts 11-12.7 (RL 8 is supported for lower grade-levels, but not for grades 11 and 12)

RL 11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RL 11-12.6: Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

RI 11-12.7: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Supported Reading Standards: Literature 11-12.2, 11-12.3

RL 11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL 11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Targeted Writing Standards: 11-12.1, 11-12.4, 11-12.9.

W.11-12.1.a-b.: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. Explore and inquire into areas of interest to formulate an argument.

W 11-12.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

W.11-12.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.


  1. Printouts or online access to the poem "Two or Three Things from the Past"
  2. Recording of Yu Jian reading the poem aloud, available via the Context tab of "Two or Three Things from the Past."
  3. Printouts or online access (via the Context tab) to these three posters:
    1. "Chairman Mao Meeting Little Red Guards"
    2. "We smash his dog head who dares to oppose Chairman Mao"
    3. "Dazibao" (Big Character Posters)

Vocabulary to teach:

    • Revolutionary: (adj.) In this context, of or relating to the Cultural Revolution in China and Chinese Communism
    • Counterrevolutionary: In opposition to the Cultural Revolution in China and Chinese Communism. During the Cultural Revolution, an accusation of being "counterrevolutionary" could lead to imprisonment or death.
    • Vernacular: Native, everyday language, as opposed to more formal language

Vocabulary to present directly:

    • Characters: In written Chinese, symbols that represent words or sounds. (This definition appears in the "About" tab in the online version of poem.)


1. Do Now: Have students freewrite in response to the first line of the poem's 4th stanza: "He stood on the side watching everyone play." You might ask: "What do you think is going on here? How might 'he' be feeling?" Invite a few students to read their responses aloud.

    • 5-10 minutes

2. Masterful Reading: Have students read the introduction to the poem and then listen to the poet's recorded readings, in Chinese, of Stanzas 4, 7 and 10, available in the "Context" tab. After each stanza in Chinese, have students work with partners to:

  1. Briefly describe the emotions they heard in the poet's voice
  2. Read the English translation of the stanza
  3. Note questions that arise for them about the poem and/or its historical context
    • 10-15 minutes

3. Contextual Exploration: Have students use the materials in the "Context" tab to try to answer the questions that arose as they read. (For example, if they are curious about the poet's personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution, they might take a look at the interview with Full Tilt magazine.) After students have found answers to some of their questions, reassemble the group and invite them to share their most interesting or surprising discoveries.

    • 20-30 minutes

4. Discussion: Invite students to paraphrase the events and descriptions of stanzas 4, 7 and 10 (advanced students may do this work in small groups.) Once students understand the poem on a literal level, move on to more complex questions; for example, you might ask them what the boy in Stanza 4 seems to be feeling, and have them support their ideas with textual evidence. As a transition into the next activity, ask students to consider the narrator's perspective on the Cultural Revolution: what emotions does this poem convey?

    • 15-25 minutes

5. Small Group Discussion: To prepare students for the activity, explain that propaganda was a key element in the Cultural Revolution, and included posters, films, and music. With students, look through the propaganda poster gallery in the Context tab: what message is it conveying, and how?

Tell students that they will be comparing the poem's depiction of the Cultural Revolution to the depiction of the Cultural Revolution in government propaganda. Divide students into three small groups, and assign each group a different stanza, topic, and piece of government propaganda:

Encourage groups to use historical materials from the Context or Playlist tabs to check the veracity of the propaganda when questions arise. Have each group prepare a 3-5-minute presentation answering the questions:

    1. What is the propaganda saying about the topic, and how?
    2. What is the poem saying about the same topic, and how?
    3. What does the propaganda leave out? (Use the poem and historical materials in your answer.)

Explain that a short discussion will follow each presentation.

Have students take notes on one another's presentations and ask questions of group members.

    • 40-45 minutes

6. Individual Assignment/Homework: Have students write essays responding to the prompt below:

What, if any, is the difference between poetry and propaganda? Use examples from Yu Jian's poem and Cultural Revolution propaganda to support your answer.

    • 35-40 minutes if done in class.

Assessment: Student presentations & written assignments

Many thanks to Sophie Danis Oberfield, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, for her feedback about this lesson plan.