Patti Smith

PBS Premiere: Dec. 30, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Historical Influences on Art and Artists

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INTRODUCTION: This lesson plan incorporates the film and POV website resources of Patti Smith: Dream of Life, an intimate portrait of legendary rocker, poet and artist Patti Smith. Since Smith has associated and collaborated with a number of influential poets, musicians and other cultural artists, students can use these resources to create timelines that show how artists are affected by the time periods in which they live.

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Please visit our Film Library to find other films suitable for classroom use.

Note: This film has mature themes and contains profanity. If you plan to use the complete film in the classroom, we recommend that you record the program off-air or request the "broadcast version" of this film from the POV lending library.


By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • React in writing to a quotation.
  • Listen to an example of Patti Smith's music.
  • View and discuss a photo gallery of Smith's associates, including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Philip Glass, Michael Stipe and others.
  • Work with partners to conduct research and write concise summaries of their findings.
  • Contribute their research findings to a group timeline.
  • Discuss how artists in the timeline reflect the time period in which they lived.


SUBJECT AREAS: English/Language Arts, U.S. History, Civics, Art, Music

MATERIALS: Method of showing the entire class online video clips and website resources

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: Portions of two 50-minute class periods to kick off and wrap up the main activity, plus research time outside of class

Clip 1: "An Indictment of George W. Bush" (length 3:47)
The clip starts at 1:08:18 with a view of the landscape passing outside the window of a moving train and ends at 1:12:05 with Patti at the microphone.


Patti Smith is a rocker, poet and artist whose story is interwoven with many important modern cultural movements. Through her associations and collaborations with poets William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and musicians Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe, she is a bridge between the Beat Generation, the punk movement and musicians of today. For more on Smith and those who inspired her work, see her biography and Photo Gallery: Patti Smith with Family and Friends on the POV website.

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1. Give students a few minutes to react in writing to the following quote:
"I just love the work that people do. I always have. Nothing is more exciting than a new book or to uncover a new writer or see a great painting or a piece of architecture you haven't seen. It excites me -- the work that people do. It's one of the great things about being alive -- what our fellow man produces. It's not always that I want to possess the work myself, or cover the work myself. I bathe in it. I learn from it. I'm inspired by it. I might extend it or improvise on it. I think that all artists do this. And to be a part of this chain of being is beautiful. You celebrate and remember your ancestors, and you give and you become an ancestor yourself."

2. Ask each student to share what he or she has written with a partner, then invite a few students to read their written responses to the class. Discuss:

  • How would students summarize this quote in their own words?
  • What does the author mean by the phrase "be a part of this chain of being"?
  • What do students think are the sources of their best ideas?

3. Explain that the quote comes from Patti Smith, a rocker, poet and artist who has known and collaborated with many influential thinkers, writers, artists and musicians throughout her life.

4. Give students a taste of Smith's music by playing a video of her performing a song she's written, such as "Grateful" or "Beneath the Southern Cross".

5. Explain to students that Smith got involved in music after doing a number of public readings of her poetry. At one point, she asked a friend to play guitar while she read her poems. Eventually they added more musicians and became a band. Smith's experimentation with her band pioneered the punk movement in New York City in the 1970s. All the while, Smith continued to write poetry and express herself in other creative ways.

6. Show students the Photo Gallery: Patti Smith with Family and Friends. Point out that Smith associated and collaborated with a number of artistic individuals who have contributed to American culture.

7. Divide the class into small groups. Instruct each group to create a timeline that features key moments in the careers of Smith and her friends. The timeline should also include historic events that took place in the United States around the same time. The timelines can be displayed on a wall, on a large roll of paper or using a free online timeline creator like xtimeline.

8. Give each group a specific individual or topic to research, such as:


  • William S. Burroughs
  • Bob Dylan
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Philip Glass
  • Robert Mapplethorpe
  • Fred "Sonic" Smith
  • Patti Smith (POV provides a biography)
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Michael Stipe
  • Tom Verlaine and Television (band)

Periods in U.S. History

  • 1950s - Beat Generation; McCarthyism; Elvis Presley
  • 1960s - civil rights era; "Space Race"; Woodstock
  • 1970s - Vietnam War; birth of punk rock; Roe v. Wade
  • 1980s - Challenger incident; HIV/AIDS; cable television and MTV
  • 1990s - Gulf War; Los Angeles riots; grunge music
  • 2000s - Iraq and Afghanistan wars; first African American president; social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook)
  • Other related events important to your curriculum

Students should conduct their research outside of class and return with brief descriptions of their people and their cultural contributions or concise summaries of events from their assigned time periods.

9. After an appropriate amount of time for your class to complete its research, ask each group to post its timeline.

10. Discuss:

  • How do the artists in the timeline reflect the time period in which they lived?
  • Which cultural artists would students want to add to this timeline? Why?
  • Refer back to Smith's quote in step one of this activity. Do students agree with Smith's belief that creativity feeds further creativity and that artists inspire one another in an ongoing "chain of being"? Why or why not?
  • How does organizing information in a timeline affect our understanding of the people and events of this time period?


Students can be assessed on:

  • Participation in class discussions and activities.
  • Quality of contributions made to the timeline.
  • Knowledge of the overall content in the group timeline.

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    • Examine art as a form of political activism. Analyze Smith's poem/song, "People Have the Power." What was Smith dreaming about? What does she want people to do? Explain that Smith often uses her work to raise public awareness about issues that are important to her. For example, she has been an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush, as seen in the film clip provided with this lesson, "An Indictment of George W. Bush." Show the clip to students and ask them for reactions. Do students think Smith's performance is an effective form of political protest? Why or why not? Then, share this quote from Smith (from a Filter magazine interview):

      It's not patriotic to agree with everything your government says. The Bush Administration has never understood our organic law. Jefferson clearly lays out that a true patriot does not say "yes." A true patriot questions his government and will protest and rise against the government. What our country is built on is quite beautiful, but how it's been interpreted and twisted is quite ugly.

      Given these two examples of Smith's work, do students consider Smith a patriot? Have each student respond to this question in a persuasive essay.


    • Analyze the messages of Smith's lyrics. Begin by looking at what has inspired Smith's writing. Use the timelines students built in the main activity to review influential events during the course of her life. Then choose a song by Smith from the collection provided by POV and display the lyrics while listening to Smith sing the song. As a class, break down the song and analyze its message. Then have small student groups repeat the exercise and write up their analyses.


    • Help students think creatively about life after high school. When Patti Smith was 21, she left her factory job and life in southern New Jersey and moved to New York City. Talking about her reasons for the move, she said:

      There was no chance for extension [at home in New Jersey]. There was no chance to be destroyed or really be created there, just lived, and that's okay for some people but I always felt something different stirring in me, and that's what... that's like, uh, why I came here, 'cause I knew there was stuff inside me that... that could, like, flower.

      Ask students to imagine their own lives after high school -- where they think they'd like to live and what they think they'd like to do. Then, have each one create a poem, play, story, painting, song or other artistic representation of his or her imagined future.


    • Explore what the objects we possess reveal about our lives. In the film Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Smith describes items that are meaningful to her because of the memories they evoke -- a guitar given to her by Sam Shepard, a dress from her childhood, a T-shirt that her son wore as a baby, a small urn that holds some of the remains of her dear friend Robert Mapplethorpe, etc. Images of these Objects of Life can be seen on the filmmakers' website for the film. Have each student create a photo slideshow of five of his or her own "objects of life" and write a short description of what each object means to him or her. Then, provide some popcorn and invite students to share their slideshows with the class.


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Biography: Patti Smith
Billboard magazine provides information on Smith's artistic influences, from jazz to Beat poetry to playwright Sam Shepard. It specifically focuses on her major successes and how she paved the way for other women musicians.

How to Analyze a Poem Using Annotations
Educator Trent Lorcher shares some ideas for working with students to analyze poems.

The Independent: "Patti Smith Rails Against Israel and U.S."
This September 2006 article describes how Smith's songs "Without Chains" and "Qana" reflect her political concerns about Israeli and American foreign policy.

Patti Smith
Patti Smith's official website features a blog with her thoughts on various experiences, a schedule of appearances, performance clips, details on her political activity and more.

Green Pages: "Patti Smith Reaffirms That People Have the Power"
In this summer 2005 interview in the newspaper of the Green Party of New York State, Smith describes how she integrates her political views into her music. 20th Century History features milestones in 20th-century history.

Social Studies for Kids
This website, created by former writer David White, offers articles about 20th-century U.S. history for students and teachers.

Lone Star College - Kingwood Library: American Cultural History: The 20th Century
Reference librarians assembled timelines based on different periods in the 20th-century United States that offer information about the major events and trends of each decade.

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These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

Art Connections
Standard 1: Understands connections among the various art forms and other disciplines.

Arts and Communication

Standard 2: Critiques art works in terms of the historical and cultural contexts in which they were created.

Standard 3: Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings.

Standard 4: Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication.

Standard 5: Knows a range of works of art and communication from various historical and cultural periods.


Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

Standard 19: Understands what is meant by "the public agenda," how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media.


Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.


Standard 7: Understands the relationship between music and history and culture.

U.S. History

Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

Visual Arts

Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.

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Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and northern Virginia.