By Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
“Before you go further,/ let me tell you what a poem brings,/ first, you must know the secret,/ there is no poem/ to speak of, it is a way to attain/ a life without boundaries”
— from “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings by Juan Felipe Herrera
I have been teaching creative writing to middle school and high school students in and outside of traditional classroom spaces for about five years now. For the most part, I have found that despite the need for these creative spaces, they are too hard to come by. My purpose in each teaching space is to create a safe space where youth can use their lived experiences, their communities, and their imagination as inspiration to find their voices—alongside teaching them a skill or two about creative writing. My favorite part of teaching creative writing is the opportunity to listen to youth tell their stories. When I start my classes, I always let youth know that I was undocumented when I was their age, and with high school students, I might reveal that I grew up around domestic violence. I don’t share these personal facts for any shock factor but because there’s still a dangerous misconception that people like me—and like my students—are not writers. The lack of representation and diversity in books available in K-12 classrooms impacts whether children and young adults understand their experiences as valuable and whether they can see themselves as agents of their own stories. In other words, not seeing ourselves represented in what we read while in school influences the value we give to our personal experiences and whether we consider ourselves worthy enough to write our own stories. Most of the work that I do in each teaching space is about undoing the fallacies of who can be a writer and what stories can be told.
I enjoy teaching poetry most of all because, at first, youth are very hesitant about reading and writing poetry because it’s “too hard” to understand or there are “too many rules” to follow, but they are then surprised and even excited when we read poems by the likes of Francisco X. Alarcon, Pat Mora, or Juan Felipe Herrera. I’m sure what surprises them is that these poems are about tortillas, abuelas, or about barrios like the ones in which they live. The idea here is not to essentialize their Latinx experiences, or their experiences as children of color for that matter, but stories about cultural foods, grandmas, immigration, class, and the like still resonate with children and young adults of color for a reason. Even if they are exposed to writers of color in their classrooms, students and teachers alike are constantly battling the negative messages youth receive about their cultural, ethnic, and class background. Because of this, it’s refreshing and empowering for youth to hear stories they can relate to in hopes that they do will want to share their own stories.
Poetry usually becomes the favorite outlet for many of my students, especially after I tell them that they can write poetry without needing to follow any rules. Poetry has become a safe way for my students to unleash their dreams, their pain, and their imaginations without necessarily revealing the truth about any of the above. Imagery, metaphors, similes, and symbols are very powerful tools for youth to process their experiences without needing to name their afflictions if they don’t want to. On the other hand, poetry is the perfect vessel for them to say what they want with little stress from conventional English grammar rules. Believe it or not, complete sentences, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation can be real bummers. I have had the most hesitant of 6th grade boys write poems about video games, boogers, balls, or about how stupid 6th grade is. And I encourage those types of poems because those, too, are important stories. There are certainly other students that can relate to poetry about video games and the dreadfulness that is 6th grade. In the same vein, I have had students reveal that they struggle with depression, that they don’t like the color of their skin, that they are embarrassed by their parent’s broken English, that they or a family member are undocumented or have been deported. I don’t ever ask students to write about their deepest, darkest secrets. I often give them the option to make something up if they don’t want to write about themselves. But more often than not, students share these personal stories without prompting because they need to. In my poetry sessions[i], I try to give students the opportunity to say what they can’t say aloud in hopes that they may “attain a life without boundaries.”
How to Use Poetry in Latinx Children’s Literature to Encourage Children and Youth to Read/Write Poetry
For elementary and middle school students, I often start off with Francisco X. Alarcón’s poetry for children because they are fun, culturally relevant, and bilingual (English/Spanish). Alarcón has many wonderful books of poetry for children but I use the “The Magical Cycle of the Seasons Series,” which includes Iguanas in the Snow: And Other Winter Poems, Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Spring Poems, From the Bellybutton of the Moon: And other Summer Poems, Angels Ride Bikes: And Other Fall Poems, because it allows me to use the five senses to describe how each season manifest itself in a student’s community.
For example, Alarcón’s poem “Dream,” in Laughing Tomatoes: And Other Summer Poems, is about gardens everywhere and everyone helping to plant gardens. When teaching this poem, I first ask the youth to read the poem aloud. I like to ask different students to read the same poem several times so that we can hear different intonations and discuss if emphasizing different words in the poem changes its meaning. I do the same with the Spanish version of the poem. I then talk about which of the five senses the poem uses to tell the story. I ask students to point to specific lines in the poem to support their arguments. We then move into a group discussion about gardens, their purposes, where we might see them, and if they have one of their own. Depending on the group, I might ask them to write in free verse about the gardens in their homes/communities or to imagine their own garden. If the youth or group needs more structure, I might ask them to write an acrostic or cinquain poem about gardens or a garden related subjects. To close out the session, I often ask students to share their poems, or we might try to mime or sing the poem. When there’s not enough time to go into that much detail with the poem, I read the poem with the youth, ask them what they think the poem is about, and ask them to write their own poem about their garden, a garden they’ve seen, or why there should or shouldn’t be more gardens in their communities. Maya Christina Gonzalez’s beautiful illustrations also present an opportunity for students to create additional garden paintings, drawings, or an entirely new poem based on the illustrations.
For older students I often refer to Juan Felipe Herrera’s novel in verse Downtown Boy. More often than not, we focus on the young main character Juanito to discuss issues such as discrimination in school, immigration, gender roles, masculinity and femininity, diabetes, family, and more. If I have an opportunity to teach the entire novel, then I often create poetry portfolios with my students where we pick a broader theme like identity, culture, and/or community that will thread throughout all their poems. If I don’t have enough time to cover the entire novel, then I usually pick the poems that will best represent the student population or the poem with which they can connect to the most.
For example, Downtown Boy opens with Juanito’s cousin trying to coerce him into boxing Sweet Pea Price. Juanito is new to San Francisco and wants to make friends but his father has advised him against fighting. Juanito will need to decide if he will fight or not. When teaching this poem, I ask students to read this poem aloud; we then discuss Juanito’s character traits and the overall voice of the poem. I brainstorm with my students about times they might have been in a similar predicament. Because this poem uses dialogue, I encourage my students to include two different voices. If the youth have finished their poems, I might ask them to share their work. With older students, I like to encourage revisions and workshopping each other’s poems in order to improve our writing and to learn from one another.
Poetry in Action
The following poems were written by young poets in my creative writing classes. Kimberly Alvarez is currently a sophomore in high school in Riverside, California. Naomi Lara is currently a 6th grader in an elementary in Chicago, Illinois. Jennifer Alvarez is currently a senior in high school in Riverside, California. I’m grateful for their words and for their permission to share them here.
by Kimberly Alvarez
I look up at the ceiling.
I’m sound asleep
I don’t want to wake up.
Until my eyes just…
Like a curtain beside me
When the wind comes through
At 5:00 a.m…
I hear my dad getting ready for
I can tell he didn’t choose that
Job or this life for himself
Or my family.
I see through him
Through his eyes,
To his soul.
It may seem…
but in reality
I can feel,
Feel the warmth
When I look into his eyes,
To his soul.
They change color. His eyes.
With him. His mood.
Can’t he be as warm as his soul is..
I always do
Of my family,
Finally happy together.
Put back together
Like a puzzle.
I always wonder
What my family would
Be like without
When I get up
It all flows down
Goes down like a giant wave
Drowning my dreams
And pulling them down
I look up at the ceiling
All of my dreams,
On the ceiling
Waiting for the rest
Of my dreams to
One BIG dream.
Un Gran Sueño.
It All Changed
By Noemi Lara
Happy girl, good friends
She should have cherished those moments
For they would be gone too soon
She looked up at the moon
Little did she know everything was about to change
Her mom and dad were acting strange
They told her they needed to arrange a meeting to see new houses.
Their new house has mouses
The neighborhood was foul
She couldn’t help but growl
She grew older
And things got colder
Her friends were bolder
Her parents would fight
It gave her a fright
She fought with all her might
But all she would see was the night
Oh how it all changed
By Jennifer Alvarez
My California is fun times at Lake Perris.
Running into the water but jumping back when you feel the ice
In those rare but amazing visits to see my “best cousin forever”
Laughing, fighting, hugging, and talking until the next three
months when we reunites.
It is those two times going to Big Bear.
Snowman on the roof of my dad’s car, attempting to bring it back
home to show it to my friends.
It is the multiple times driving to Moreno Valeey to Walmart with my sister.
Music blaring, singing along with smiles on our faces.
It is the sisterly bonding we had going to the Moreno Valley
But mostly, my California are memories with the people I love.
[i] Currently I teach poetry as a Teaching Artist with ElevArte Community Studio, an arts organization in Chicago. “Word Up,” is a pilot program funded by ElevArte and the Poetry Foundation to create a safe space for underrepresented youth to learn about and write poetry. I visit a local elementary school once a week to teach, read, and write poetry with two 6th grade classes. I have worked closely with their awesome teacher, Ms. Delta Cervantes, to create a poetry curriculum that also meets common core standards. The 6th graders are presently working on spoken word projects.
[ii] Dream was first published in 2012 in a youth anthology, R’side of the Story, out of the Youth Opportunity Center in Riverside, California
[iii] My California was published in 2013 in R’side of the Story
Dr. Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez’s research focuses on the various roles that healing plays in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. She currently teaches composition and literature at a community college in Chicago. She also teaches poetry to 6th graders and drama to 2nd graders as a teaching artist through a local arts organization. She is working on her middle grade book. Follow Sonia on Instagram @latinxkidlit