When Malindy Sings Analysis Essay

“When Malindy Sings” appeared in Dunbar’s second collection of poems, Majors and Minors. Because it is a dialect piece, Dunbar placed it in the latter half of the collection, subtitled “Minors.” Ironically, “When Malindy Sings” quickly became one of Dunbar’s most popular poems and has since become perhaps his most anthologized dialect poem.

“When Malindy Sings” was inspired by Dunbar’s mother’s constant singing of hymns and Negro spirituals. In particular, Dunbar attributes the powerful melody and unmatchable phrasings to particular natural gifts of black singers.

The narrator, himself apparently a house servant, admonishes all to keep quiet as Malindy, probably a field slave, sings various songs of religious import. Miss Lucy, perhaps the plantation mistress, is told that her trained singing from a written score is no competition for Malindy’s natural talent; indeed, the birds, though they sing sweetly, hush of their own accord when Malindy sings her superior melodies. Whenever Malindy sings, the narrator observes, it is a singular spiritual experience, one that should be taken advantage of every time.

In this early poem, Dunbar’s gifts as a poet are evident: the meter and rhyme are regular, as are the quatrains that make up the poem. Furthermore, Dunbar is quite adept at creating images and imparting feeling through his use of sensory detail, talents he would continue to employ and capitalize upon in succeeding works.

Overview of Lesson

The purpose of this lesson is to explore and gain a greater understanding the unit's essential question: "How do values influence the way we express ourselves?" Students will be introduced to the life and works of the first famous African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Students will learn that Dunbar wrote his poetry in both dialect and near–standard English. They will read and analyze Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "When Malindy Sings", written in dialect. Students will work in cooperative groups to translate "When Malindy Sings" into Standard English and discuss if Dunbar's use of dialect contributed to the poem's message. Students will also discuss through writing if they believe Dunbar's decision to write "When Malindy Sings" in dialect was influenced by his values.

This lesson is intended to be taught after the students are introduced to the character, Timothy, in Chapter 3 of The Cay.

Teacher Planning, Preparation, and Materials

Text Complexity

There are no quantitative measures available for poetry. The dialect in this poem will make it a challenge for students who are unaccustomed to reading dialect. Students may need support in reading the poem. It is recommended to do the translation activity before doing the analysis of the poem.


  • Prepare for the lesson by closely reading the poem and analyzing its content.
  • Read biographical information about Paul Laurence Dunbar to share with students.
  • Obtain a copy of the poem on audio (see links below) or record yourself reading the poem.
  • Prepare a "Personal Poetry Journal" for each student to record their ideas, take notes, and/or write poetry. (The journal can be a spiral notebook or a section of the students' binders.)
  • Run off personal Elements of Poetry glossary for each student as reference during lesson: www.dmturner.org/English/Poetry/elements.htm
  • Prepare and administer the lesson pre-assessment to determine students' understanding of elements of poetry and to determine their background knowledge and experiences with poetry. Establish cooperative learning groups (based on pre-assessment results). Assessment option # 1: Read the poem, "The Sea", and conduct a class discussion about the elements of poetry found in the poem. Assessment Option # 2: Read the poem, "The Sea", and direct students to answer questions about the elements found in the poem (figurative language and literary devices).
  • Prepare discussion cards for cooperative groups to review information from The Cay concerning Timothy and Phillip's relationship and their ability to communicate with each other. (See questions in lesson procedure section).
Lesson Materials
  • Student copies of the poem, "When Malindy Sings"
  • Copies of "When Malindy Sings" cut into individual stanzas
  • Audio recording of, "When Malindy Sings" in both dialect and near-standard English
  • Graphic organizer for translation task in cooperative groups
  • Pre-assessment to determine students' knowledge of poetry and poetry terms
  • Poetry Handbook of poetry terms for students to reference during lessons
  • Biographical articles about Laurence Dunbar


The following suggestions may be utilized to differentiate the lesson appropriately based on the individual needs of students.

  • Apply appropriate elements of UDL:
  • Apply WIDA Performance Definitions and CAN DO Descriptors to differentiate lesson for English Language Learners.
    • Offer use of bilingual dictionary (as needed)
    • Create a personalized dictionary with vocabulary for each of the poems (as needed). If possible, use pictures to aid in defining terms. Review literary terms related to the analysis of the poem, including (but not limited to): poem, title, tone, theme, stanza, line, rhyme, rhythm, paraphrase, author's message, connotation, diction, repetition, multiple meanings, personification, simile, metaphor, and alliteration.
  • Direct students (in their cooperative learning group) to review the use of dialect in Chapter 3 of The Cay by discussing the following questions. Students should be prepared to share their answers or any conclusions their group makes with the class.
    • How did Timothy communicate with Phillip? Use evidence from The Cay to support your answer.
    • How did Phillip respond to and/or interact with Timothy?
    • Did Timothy's use of dialogue affect how Phillip treated and communicated with Timothy? Use evidence from The Cay to support your answer.
  • Ask each group to select one person to share their group's thoughts and conclusions with the class.
  • Explain to the class that they will leave the book, The Cay for a short time to examine another genre that authors use to express themselves, poetry.
  • Use one of the options to present information on the poet/author, Dunbar.
    • Option # 1: Briefly introduce the author, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, using the information from the biographical article. Teacher will determine what information is essential to be incorporated into a short purposeful introduction to the poet and the poems contained in the two lessons.
    • Option # 2: Create a Jigsaw activity: http://www.mlab.uiah.fi/polut/Yhteisollinen/tyokalu_jigsaw.html
      • Chunk a biographical article about Paul Laurence Dunbar into sections. Use the team jigsaw strategy to learn/share information about Dunbar's life.
      • Discuss as entire class any conclusions can be make about Paul Laurence Dunbar, his works, and what may have influenced how he expressed himself.
  • Tell the class they will now have an opportunity to do a close reading of one of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poems written in dialect.
  • Have students conduct an initial reading of either the entire poem or first few stanzas, to experience reading dialect. If ready, students can read the entire poem to determine its central idea. Consider the readers and the poem's complexities/challenges and how these challenges will need to be addressed for the students to glean meaning from the first reading of the poem. Consider how students will access the text (read independently, teacher read aloud, partner reading or listen to audio recording of the poem).
  • Distribute the dialect version of the poem, "When Malindy Sings". If students read the poem independently, suggest that they may annotate or highlight the poem as they read.
  • Ask the students to share their experience of reading a poem in dialect, focusing on difficulties and strategies used to understand the dialect.
  • Ask the class to listen to the poem (as an entire class) on audio. Play the dialect version listed in the lesson planning section.
  • Discuss the central idea of the poem. Students may need to revisit or translate the dialect to Standard English before they are able to determine the central idea.
  • Divide the poem into the different stanzas. Students will be assigned one stanza to translate from dialect to Standard English. Working with a partner, students will write their stanza in Standard English.
  • Assemble the poem using the Standard English translations completed by the students
  • Try to come to consensus as to what is the best translation.
  • Pass out an "official" translation of the poem "When Malindy Sings".
  • Play the translated Standard English audio version of the poem and direct the students to read the poem silently as they listen.
  • After listening to the translation, group students into groups of two to summarize each stanza of the poem. Model summarizing the first two stanzas. (Summary of stanza1: Miss Lucy should just give up trying to sing. Summary of stanza 2: Miss Lucy doesn't have the natural talent Malindy has and will never sing as well as Malindy.)
  • Direct the pairs to complete summarizing the remaining stanzas.
  • Ask the students to share their summaries with the class and post them on a bulletin board. Come to consensus as a class as to the most accurate summary.
  • Ask the students to record in their Personal Poetry Journal the answers to the following questions. Direct the student that they may work in pairs or individually. Direct students to use evidence from the poem to support their responses.
    • Who is the speaker in the poem?
    • Where is Malindy when she sings?
    • Who is Miss Lucy?
    • What clues does Dunbar give to indicate that Miss Lucy is trying to learn to sing?
    • What message is Dunbar trying to express in his poem, "When Malindy Sings"?
    • What insight does the reader gain about Dunbar's values from reading the poem, "When Malindy Sings"?
Lesson Closure
  • Conduct a class discussion about the questions above. Focus the discussion on the last question: What insight does the reader gain about Dunbar's values from reading the poem, "When Malindy Sings"?
  • After the class discussion, direct students to write a summary expressing their belief whether or not Dunbar's decision to express himself through dialect in the poem, How Malindy Sings" was an effective way to express his point of view. Direct students to use evidence from the poem in their response.
CCSS Standards Alignment

Reading: Literature

RL.6.1 Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL.6.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
RL.6.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone
RL.6.5 Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
RL.6.6 Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.
RL.6.7 Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.
RL.6.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.


W.6.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Speaking & Listening

SL.6.1c Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.
SL.6.1d Review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.


L.6.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
L.6.5a Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.
L.6.5c Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., stingy, scrimping, economical, unwasteful, thrifty).

One thought on “When Malindy Sings Analysis Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *