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Essential Questions:

  • What is the role of the poet, the journalist, and the scientist in society?
  • How do poetry, journalism, and science connect, and how do they differ?
  • How can journalism and science be used to propagate or combat forces such as white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy?

Reading Guide for Select Poems:

A selection of poems from If God Is a Virus are freely available here. This reading guide reproduces the ten available poems, along with a worksheet for each poem that will guide reflection on the content and form. Download the guide in PDF or Word format below, and purchase the complete collection from Haymarket Books here.

Introductory Lesson Plan:

This lesson introduces If God Is a Virus, a book of documentary poetry by Dr. Seema Yasmin that interrogates the worlds of journalism, medicine, international aid, and their intersections. Because the book stands at the intersections of poetry, journalism, and science, and critically examines the ethics of practicing each, educators in ELA, Social Studies, and Science classes (among others) will find an entry point in these poems.

Step 1. Create a Venn diagram with three circles, and label them: Journalism / Poetry / Science. Use your Venn diagram to brainstorm: What is the role of each of these in society? What needs do they serve? Consider how they differ, and how they overlap.

Venn diagram labeled with "journalism," "poetry," and "science"

Step 2. Read the bio of Dr. Seema Yasmin, whose poetry book we will explore in this lesson. While you read, consider: How do you think the experiences listed in this bio might shape Dr. Yasmin’s poetry?

DR. SEEMA YASMIN is a science journalist, medical doctor, Kundiman Fiction Fellow, and Emerson Collective Fellow. As an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she investigated outbreaks in prisons, hospitals, border towns, and reservations. As a journalist, she covered epidemics of Zika, Ebola, and Covid-19, as well as public health crises of racism, gun violence, and gender violence. Born in George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and raised in Hackney, East London, she lives in California where she is director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University.

Step 3. Read this brief introduction to the book:

Based on original reporting from West Africa and the United States, and the poet’s experiences as a doctor and journalist, If God Is A Virus charts the course of the largest and deadliest Ebola epidemic in history, telling the stories of Ebola survivors, outbreak responders, journalists, and the virus itself. Documentary poems explore which human lives are valued, how editorial decisions are weighed, what role the aid industrial complex plays in crises, and how medical myths and rumor can travel faster than microbes.

These poems also give voice to the virus. Eight percent of the human genome is inherited from viruses and the human placenta would not exist without a gene descended from a virus. If God Is A Virus reimagines viruses as givers of life and even authors of a viral-human self-help book.

Step 4. Dr. Yasmin reported on the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and its aftermath; that reporting was part of what inspired her poems in If God Is a Virus. Use any knowledge you have of the Ebola outbreak, and your knowledge of more recent public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to answer the following questions:

  • What is the role of a doctor or scientist in a public health crisis—how can they help people?
  • How can doctors and scientists harm people in a public health crisis? Can you think of any examples of how doctors or scientists have done harm?
  • What is the role of a journalist in a public health crisis—how can they help people?
  • How can journalists harm people in a public health crisis? Can you think of any specific examples of how journalists have done harm?

Step 5. Read “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Note that the title of the poem comes from a slogan of The New York Times, which has been printed in the newspaper since 1897. Discuss the following questions:

  • What do you think it means when The New York Times claims to contain “all the news that’s fit to print”? Why might this be a problem, and how is the problem present in journalism as a field (not just in the Times)?
  • This poem critiques several systems and stakeholders. List at least three. Then, identify and explain the line(s) that critique each one. Consider stakeholders such as: journalists; editors; news consumers; doctors; and international aid organizations.
  • Return to your reflections on the role of doctors, scientists, and journalists. Does this poem add anything new to your understanding of how a doctor or scientist can help/harm people? What about how a journalist can help/harm people?

Step 6. Explore these themes in depth by engaging in the reading guide for If God Is a Virus, and the extension activities (see tabs above)

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