Dolls, Vases, Fringes — Memoir Writing & Historical Artifacts

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.

Dinner is a casual affair.

Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,

Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.

Two who have lived their day,

But keep on putting on their clothes

And putting things away.

And remembering . . .

Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,

As they lean over the beans in their rented back


that is full of beads and receipts and dolls

and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

— Gwendolyn Brooks

Dolls, Vases, & Fringes

We began class by reading aloud Gwendolyn Brook’s poem. Students were put into small groups and given an object from the cigar box pictured above. Students were to pretend that the object in their possession belonged to the couple described in the poem they just read. Students were to write a history of that object in the couple’s lives. Where did they get it? Why have they kept it? Where do they keep it in their rooms? What does it mean to them?

Students could write the collaborative piece in either the first person . . .”I remember when we got this . . .” or in third person . . .”The couple in the poem got this on the day they . . .” Be as specific as possible. Tell lots of details about the couple’s lives. Students were in effect, creating their memories. Making them as vivid and as interesting as possible.

After ten minutes we came together to share our histories as a whole class. Students also wrote down two or three possible titles for the poem.

The poem’s title is “The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

This activity was designed by my classmate while at Syracuse University working on our teaching degrees. It is an activity that I use with both my middle school students as a text pairing with the short story “A Summer Tragedy” by Arna Bontemps. In addition, I use it with my graduate students to address the role of artifacts in our classroom to teach historical literacy and creative writing.

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