Wednesday, April 6, 2016

On Teaching Poetry to Students


During poetry class, Katherine, a newly-arrived student in Ms. Thomas's 3rd grade, sloppily copied random words from the posters on the wall. Because I couldn't make sense of her writing, I asked her what it meant. In this way, I discovered that she spoke no English, and was attempting to write something—anything—in order to fit in. Even random words on the board.

So I brought her some poems in Spanish, and we took dictation. It was a rough process bringing her to poetry, as her skills were low. At first, she was an unwilling student. I had to remind her it was improper to sass back. Then I discovered that she couldn't read or write in Spanish either. She was trapped between languages, and unable to write in either one.

Once she saw her first poem in print, and I read it aloud to the class in Spanish, it was a breakthrough moment. The kids wanted to know what it said. As I translated her poem line by line, she beamed with pride.  And her attitude toward me, toward the class, and language radically shifted. She was aboard.

I didn't have time to take dictation from her during, every class, so on those days, she continued to practice her odd abecedario in her poetry book. But soon she became impatient, because she had a poem to tell me. And I was her only link.

The last day of class as I began to transcribe her poem in Spanish, she stopped me, and said: NO! English! English, please.

It's amazing watching her begin to grasp English via poetry. She was actually ordering me to translate and write her poems in English. Such a sweet teaching moment, as I pointed to each Spanish word and gave her the English equivalent. A long cry from where we started. She was mute, having no language to communicate. And poetry was overwhelming. But she got it! Poetry gave her a voice.