By Tracey Flores
“A woman who writes has power, and a woman with power is feared.” ~Gloria Anzaldúa
On an overcast and windy day in May, ten young girls and women–daughters, sisters, mothers and teachers–gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s 7th grade classroom for an afternoon of sharing, writing and storytelling. Nibbling on pepperoni pizza and pink frosted cookies, desks arranged in a small circle in the front of the room, we sat with folders, notebook paper, and pencils, writing a letter to our sisters or mothers. This letter was the culminating writing of an afternoon of drawing self portraits and writing how we see ourselves and how we see our sisters and mothers.
As the the pencils stopped and everyone came to their closing thoughts, I invited everyone to turn to their sister or mother and read the letter they had just written to them. As I walked around the room to lean in and listen, with permission, I noticed that these handwritten letters were filled with words of advice, encouragement, and promises. They were filled with the words that many times we are too shy or afraid to share for fear of ridicule or embarrassment.
Alexandria read, “Dear Mom, An advice I want to share with you is ‘Live life to the fullest.’”
Dede read to her older sister, “…I believe in you whatever you do.”
Estefania read to her daughter, “…my sweet little miss…just know everything you do big or small I am proud of you everyday.”
This vignette of an after-school writing workshop for middle school girls and their families illustrates the transformative power of creating space with and for our students and their families that honors their lived experiences and ways of knowing. For two weeks, we gathered in Mrs. Gonzalez’s room to engage in discussion, reflection, and storytelling on topics such as creating positive self-definitions, family, and education. Although our time together was brief, we created a supportive community of writers.
As a classroom teacher, and now as a PhD candidate, I have the privilege of working with families in after-school bilingual writing workshops, like the one in the vignette. In these writing workshops, students, their siblings and grandparents work side-by-side to tell, draw, write and share stories from their lived experiences. It is an opportunity for families to enter the classroom as experts and draw upon their cultural and linguistic resources to reflect on their lived experience through storytelling, drawing, and writing.
These bilingual family writing workshops are designed within a writing workshop framework, with a mini-lesson, writing time, sharing time, and a closing reflection. Each workshop begins with the reading and discussion of a bilingual picture book, poem, or short memoir. This text is carefully selected and serves multiple purposes. First, it is selected to introduce families to the theme of the workshop. Second, the topic of the text is considered in how families may relate to it or connect it to their own experiences, if the book is culturally relevant or rather recreates negative stereotypes. Lastly, the topics, writing, text structure, and organization are considered in how they might provide families with a powerful mentor text (Fletcher, 2011) for their own writing.
After the opening text is shared and discussed, I model my own writing by talking through what I am doing and thinking as I put drawing and writing on chart paper. Sometimes I model my brainstorm and other times I just draw and write. Then, I invite families to draw and write their own stories or poems. This is my favorite part, watching students and their families write and share their stories, many times for the first time with one another.
Over the years, in these workshops, families shared stories of celebrating Las Posadas with their family and community, stories of ranchos that stretched over acres in rural parts of México where they learned to tend the animals and to cherish all the resources of the tierra, and stories of special abuelitas who embraced them and loved them in that special way only an abuelita loves you.
As I wrote earlier in this post, in preparation for working with families in workshops, I always gather several texts in a variety of genres to use as mentor texts. Below is a short list that I have used as mentor texts in bilingual writing workshops with Latinx families in schools and community centers across Phoenix and Glendale in Arizona.
Alarcón, F. (2005). Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para sonar juntos. Illustrations by Paula Barragán. Lee & Low Books.
Carlson, L.M. (2013). Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Square Fish.
Cisneros, S. (1994). Hairs/Pelitos: A Story in English and Spanish from The House on Mango Street. Dragonfly Books.
Cisneros, S. (1994). La Casa en Mango Street. Translated by Elena Poniatowska. Vintage Books.
Cisneros, S. (1991). The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books
Costales, A. (2007). Abuelita full of life/Abuelita llena de vida. Illustrations by Martha Aviles. Cooper Square Publishing.
Fanelli, Sara. (1995). My Map Book. HarperCollins.
Garza, C.L. (2005). Family Pictures/Cuadros de familia. Children’s Book Press.
Garza, C.L. (1996). In My Family/En mi familia. Children’s Book Press.
González, L. (2008). The Storyteller’s Candle/La velita de los cuentos. Illustrations by Lulu Delacre. Children’s Book Press.
Herrera, J.F. (1998). Laughing Out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish. HarperCollins.
Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m From: Where Poems Come From. Absey & Co.
Medina, J. (2004). The Dream on Blanca’s Wall: Poems in English and Spanish/ El sueño pegado en la pared de Blanca: Poemas en ingles y español. Illustrations by Robert Casilla. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
Ortiz Cofer, J. (2004). Call Me María. Scholastic Inc
Ortiz, A. (2015). Rant. Chant. Chisme. Wings Press.
Rodríguez, L. (1998). América is her name. Illustrations by Carlos Vasquez. Curbstone Books.
Soto, G. (2005). Neighborhood Odes. Harcourt.
Note: This summer, I will be collaborating with three teachers to facilitate a second series of bilingual writing workshops for Latina middle school students and their mothers. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with stories and learnings from these writing workshops
Tracey Flores is a former English Language Development (ELD) and Language Arts teacher who worked in elementary classrooms for eight years. She currently serves as the director of El Día de los Niños, El Día de los Libros and is a teacher consultant with the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Currently, Tracey is a PhD Candidate in English Education in the Department of English at ASU. Her research focuses on adolescent Latina girls and mothers’ language and literacy practices and on using family literacy as a springboard for advocacy, empowerment, and transformation for students, families, and teachers. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading Young Adult (YA) literature, drinking coffee, running, practicing yoga and spending time with her 8 month old daughter.