Lesson: Paul Chan: Tree of Life

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Art, Global Studies, New Media Studies, English
  • "Score for the 7th -Light-," 2007."Score for the 7th -Light-," 2007.
  • "Score for the 7th -Light-," 2007."Score for the 7th -Light-," 2007.
  • "2nd -Light-," 2006."2nd -Light-," 2006.


Written by Detroit poet, Angela Jones.
This lesson explores the exhibition Paul Chan: The 7 Lights. Focusing on the 2nd Light, this lesson provides students with the opportunity to interpret the cycles of change present in the exhibition and consider how material objects in our society become symbols of greater cultural significance.


  • Discussion of modes of representation.
  • Students will gain insight into the socio-political undertones of Paul Chan’s 2nd Light piece.
  • Students will learn and incorporate the techniques of free association into the analysis of Paul Chan’s artwork.
  • Students will write their own poems in response to the discussions and to the works of both Paul Chan and Samuel Hazo.


Free Association – a technique used in psychology where people continually relate anything which comes into their minds, regardless of how superficially unimportant the memory threatens to be.
Innate – existing in, belonging to, or determined by factors present in an individual from birth.
Gerrymandering – to manipulate the boundaries of a constituency so as to favor one class or party over another.


Paul Chan’s 2nd Light in the Digital Archives
Samuel Hazo’s For Which it Stands
Gallery Activity Worksheet
Andy Young’s Mama Condi

Lesson Strategy

Before viewing the artwork
Facilitator will handout to students a worksheet entitled Free Association. Explain to students that, as they are viewing the piece 2nd Light by artist Paul Chan, they will use the worksheet to record any objects that they notice in the piece. Underneath each object recorded, students will make a short list of words or phrases which immediately come to mind when they think of the object. An example of this would be:

Cell phone: talking, listening, friends, family, emergency, call 911, on hold, connection, hello

Flag: I pledge allegiance, government, power, war, fighting, competition

Facilitator will spark classroom discussion of Paul Chan’s 2nd Light using the following prompts.

  • What did you see?
  • The most prominent figure is a tree. What do trees symbolize in our society?
  • In this piece, the tree changes, how? What do you think its changing suggests?
  • What are some of the cycles of change apparent in this piece?
  • What do the rags waving in the wind remind you of?
  • What sort of event do you think is being portrayed here? What happened?

Facilitator will transition from discussion about the piece alone, to a discussion about the artwork in relation to society.

  • What do you think inspires people to commit violent acts?
  • Is violence innate? Or do we have a choice about how we respond to a certain situation?
  • What about war? Is declaring war a decision made by one individual?
  • What are some of the impulses which lead nations to war?
  • Who decides what is worth fighting for?

A volunteer will read Samuel Hazo’s For Which It Stands aloud to the class. In classroom discussion, students will attempt to dissect meaning from the text.

  • Are there any images in the poem which you saw in Chan’s 2nd Light?
  • How does the author use the image of the flag?
  • What is the significance of the veteran’s quote?
  • Does Hazo seem to place emphasis on certain words? Which words, and why?
  • Describe the relationship between war, religion, and corporations in the poem.
  • Have you seen the same connections in any of Chan’s 7 Lights?

For Which It Stands [1]
See attached file.

After reading Hazo’s poem, students will begin the task of drafting their own poems using the Free Association worksheets they completed during the viewing of Paul Chan’s 2nd Light. Facilitator will explain to students that they may choose one of the objects that they identified in the artwork. Students will then use the words and phrases they associated with that object to write a poem describing that object. Students do not have to use all associated words and phrases to draft their poem, but it is important to look at the object from all angles. Students will consider the personal significance of the object as well as the cultural significance. They may also want to describe the object’s physical traits and its functions. Students should be as thorough as possible.

Mama Condi, from We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon appears with permission from the artist Andy Young and the book publisher Interlinkbooks.


Looking back at Hazo’s For Which it Stands, the facilitator will ask students to consider the form that the poem takes.

  • Why do you think some of the lines are off-margin?
  • What does the title of the poem imply?

By using this particular form, perhaps Hazo is attempting to illustrate the waving of a flag or a tattered ribbon.

Taking the poems which were written from their free association exercise, students will rearrange the words of that poem to create a shadow image of the object that they are describing. For example, if the poem is about how war moves people to grief, the arrangement of words could take the shape of a teardrop. This type of poem is called a Concrete Poem. It is sometimes referred to as visual poetry, since the words themselves form a picture. Here is another example by poet Andy Young. Notice how his poem, which makes references to explosive devices used in warfare, takes the shape of a bullet or bomb-shell.

Ask students for an analysis of Andy Young’s poem Mama Condi.


Students will be asked to share their work.

Additional Resources

Samuel Hazo, “For Which It Stands” from Inclined to Speak. Copyright 2008 by Hayan Charara. Used by permission of the University of Arkansas Press